Update II: “Gun Guys” and Michael Bellesiles

Michael Bellesiles wrote an incredibly controversial book. Arming America: Origins of a National Gun Culture shrugged off the familiar story of the American colonist with his trusty rifle over his shoulder. Instead, Bellesiles argued that until the Civil War most Americans were unfamiliar with firearms, and a gun culture developed only because of repeated efforts by the federal government to arm the people. Needless to say, gun enthusiasts did not enjoy this thesis.

The first shots rang out over Arming America before the book had even gone to press. In 1999, Charlton Heston, the actor-turned-NRA President, wrote an editorial to Guns and Ammo stating that Bellesiles “had too much time on his hands”[1]. Heston wrote this peice based solely on pre-release reviews and Bellesiles 1996 article, The Origins of Gun Culture in the United State, 1760-1865[2]. With the book’s release, members of the NRA and other gun-advocates jumped on Bellesiles. The author claimed that he received “thousands of angry and vicious emails”, some of which made threats to him and his family[3]. The harassment became so severe that, in an unprecedented move, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture passed a resolution in 2001 condemning those that personally attacked Bellesiles.[4]

Several months later, Bellesiles’s defenders turned on him. A second wave of criticism—this time from scholars—washed away Bellesiles’s argument to reveal a deeply troubled thesis. First his probate data fell, then his travel accounts, then his military history. Over the next two years, Bellesiles unsuccessfully—and almost halfheartedly—attempted to defend himself. In the end, Bellesiles was found guilty of academic misconduct by Emory University, stripped of his Bancroft Award and Newberry fellowship, and widely seen as fraudulent in both academics and the broader public.

This second wave of criticism differed from the first in that it was (for the most part) well-researched, scholarly, and deliberate. Of course there were members of the first wave that also pointed out real errors in the book—such as Clayton Cramer—and not all of his early critics were nasty and rude. But many of the gun advocates that quickly derided Bellesiles did so in a knee-jerk, guttural way, taking not the time to find and illuminate the real errors of the book but instead simply labeling Bellesiles as anti-gun and liberal, of which he is neither[5].

Why did gun supporters react this way to Bellesiles’s thesis?

First, consider the implications of a gun-impoverished Colonial America on current public policy. If colonial Americans by and large didn’t own, use, or even care for firearms, the “Standard Model” interpretation of the Second Amendment—i.e. the idea the Second protects an individual right to bear arms –would suddenly come to rest on a foundation of sand. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the eruption of a huge debate over the interpretation of the Second Amendment, and the individual-rights group was leading the fight. By casting this interpretation into jeopardy, Bellesiles struck at the core of the movement.

Jack Rakove labels this implicit argument as a “behavioral approach”. Thus “by focusing on behavior,–the ownership of firearms, their use in daily life, and perhaps most important of all in this context, the functions and operations of the militia—Bellesiles casts this constitutional debate in a new light”[6] and reframes the playing field for today’s policy.

James Lindgren develops a second line of reasoning for the political importance of Bellesiles’s thesis. Part of Arming America describes the supposed rise of gun ownership and crime in the 19th Century, which directly links the ideas that an increase in guns results in an increase in crime—by linking the two, Bellesiles supplies gun-control activists with historical ammo.[7]

Scholars and writers who initially reviewed the book saw this importance almost immediately. For example, Michael Zuckerman wrote on Arming America’s  dust jacket that the books changes “our understanding of the Second Amendment”. More importantly, Zuckerman followed this observation by saying “Michael A. Bellesiles is the NRA’s worst nightmare”[8]. Similarly, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, although critical of sloppiness in Bellesiles research, writes that “Arming America almost furnishes a salutary corrective to current pro-gun propaganda, much of which adopts a semireligious tone. Charlton Heston and company perpetuate myths and specious rationales about the ‘right to bear arms’ in order to convert an instrument of death into a national talisman”[9].

Thus, the book struck at the heart of the gun movement—and gun advocates are not known for taking criticism lightly. In his book Gun Guys: A Road Trip, Dan Baum explores the sociology of America’s gun culture. Baum, a “lifelong gun guy and a Jewish Democrat”[10] wanted to explore his competing cultures that often left him like “a child of a bitter divorce with allegiance to both parents”[11]. Mostly he wanted to know why Americans are so fascinated with guns.

Along the course of his trip, he constantly encounters what he calls “gun–guy rage”—a hot and bitter anger in the community against liberals, President Obama, and really anyone who isn’t a gun enthusiast. Baum was perplexed by this attitude. After all, the past ten years had witnessed looser gun laws, lower support for gun control[12], and Supreme Court decisions that legally protected an individual right to bear arms.

However, Baum realized that the numbers of gun owners were dropping. Young people simply weren’t into the sport anymore, and the increased sales of guns came mostly from consumers who already owned guns[13]. More to the point, many of the men (most gun owners are men) who owned guns were part of the white, lower-middle class—a group that “hadn’t seen a real wage increase since 1978” and were all of a sudden overtaken by “women, immigrants, blacks, and gays” who “seemed to have become groovier, sexier, and more dynamic players in American culture than they were”[14]. They felt like their whole culture and world was falling down around them, and their guns—symbols of masculinity, heritage, and power—were all they had left.  To top it off the same people they blamed for their socio-economic downfall, Democrats, were trying to take guns away from them too. At one encounter, Baum asked a gun owner why he voted for McCain in 2008, saying “workingman like you—I’d have guessed you were a Democrat”. The man replied “not as long as they want to take my guns, I’m not….there’s an elitism–that guns are for the unwashed. The yokels. The people like Sarah Palin”[15].

Bellesiles thesis fell in the middle of a gun-guy America that had been through enough rough times already. They were disenchanted with the Brady Bill, and felt victimized and marginalized by the elites of the country. By writing a historical narrative that robbed them of their history and tradition, Bellesiles landed a dirty blow. Of course, this doesn’t warrant the nasty attacks and threats that he received. On the contrary, his thesis also didn’t deserve the respect and praise it won in the media and in academe.

I could go down this rabbit hole until the end of the day. Truth is, this research is re-shaping how I view gun ownership in the U.S. I don’t agree with the gun lobby or gun owners on every issue—not by a long shot—but I have a newfound respect for gun enthusiasts, and I understand why they enjoy shooting guns. Bellesiles narrative fits into that story well, and as I continue to read, I am realizing that this episode can reveal a lot about American gun culture.


[1][1] David Bowman, interview, The Reasonable Gun Nut, Salon, September 7, 2000, pg. 2.

[2] Michael Bellesiles, The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865,  The Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 2, Sept. 1996, ppg.425-455.

[3] Danny Postel, Did the Shootouts over Arming America Divert Attention from the Real issues?, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 48, No. 21, February 1 2002.

[4] Michael Bellesiles, Disarming the Critics, OAH Newsletter, Vol. 29, No.4, November 2001.

[5] Postel, Did the Shootouts over Arming America Divert Attention from the Real Issue?,  pg. 2

[6] Jack Rakove, Words, Deeds, and Guns: Arming America and the Second Amendment, William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 59, No. 1, Jan. 2002, pg. 207.

[7] James Lindgren, Fall From Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 111, No. 8, June 2002, pg. 2197.

[8] Robert Gross quoting Michael Zuckerman, Forum: Historians and Guns, William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 59, No. 1, Jan 2002, pg. 203.

[9] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Going off Half-Cocked: A Review Essay of Arming America, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 68, No. 2, May 2002, pg. 428.

[10] Dan Baum, dustjacket of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

[11] Dan Baum, Gun Guys: A Road Trip, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013, pg. 9.

[12] Ibid., 159.

[13] Ibid., 161

[14] Ibid., 162

[15] Ibid., 203.

Comments

  1. Suggestion for a future blog on this:
    But many of the gun-control advocates in the field of History that quickly supported Bellesiles did so in a knee-jerk, guttural way, taking not the time to find and illuminate the real errors of the book, but instead simply embraced Bellesiles’s complete revision of the history they themselves had studied.

    Why did these liberal, academic historians react this way to Bellesiles’s thesis?

  2. Gabriel, you’re the man. I just wanted to reafirm that. Your rough draft is 30-35 pages?! Goodness gracious! From what I’ve read and from what you told me, your project is super interesting.

    Given your research and the arguments that have been made, what sort of future do you see for gun culture in America?

  3. Gabriel Morey says:

    Dan–Thank you so much! The final paper ended up being 44 pages, double spaced. that’s more than I’ve written before! The crazy part is that I could see myself, if given a year to research this topic, writing a much longer paper on it than that. I’ll send you the final copy when it’s approved.

  4. Gabriel Morey says:

    Jtom–

    That’s a very good question, and one that I asked myself not too long after this post. I devoted a section (about 7-9 pages) of my paper to examining why the academics, many of whom are liberals, ignored the flaws in Arming America and embraced the book. In short, it “told a story they wanted to hear” (Clayton Cramer, interview with the Washington Times). Guns have transcended their status as objects and instead become cultural symbols, mainly for conservatives. Dan Baum argues that given this symbolic status, liberals often oppose guns simply because they represent conservatism. This relationship runs the other way too, with some people buying guns simply to inflame the Democrats. Thus, lacking specific training in early American probates and approaching the book from a anti-gun slant, many academics appear to have simply gotten caught up in the thesis and wanted to believe it.

  5. gncastellanos says:

    You make such great points in this entry! I knew your paper would be interesting after speaking with you about it earlier but I honestly can’t wait to hear your presentation!!