NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Gun Ownership Was Common, Not a Myth

October 23, 2001

Gun-control advocates embraced historian Michael Bellesiles' "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." In the book, which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, Bellesiles claimed there were very few guns in early America, and that most of the guns that did exist were old and broken.

Bellesiles claimed to have counted 11,170 probate inventories from colonial times to the old West and found that few estates included guns. However, researchers are questioning his methods, his evidence and his math:

  • For example, Bellesiles claims to have counted guns in probate records of the estates of people who died in 1849 or '50 and 1858 or '59 in San Francisco.
  • The problem is that, according to experts, all the probate records were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Researchers James Lindgren and Justin Heather have identified many other errors:

  • About a hundred wills in Providence, R.I., Bellesiles purported to examine do not exist.
  • He repeatedly counted women as men, counted as old or broken guns that were not so listed, and claimed that there were a "great many" state-owned weapons when there was only one.
  • And there were math mistakes -- Bellesiles calculated that an average (mean) of only 14.7 percent of probate inventories listed a gun during the period 1765-90; whereas using some of the same sources, Lindgren and Heather found guns in 50 percent to 73 percent of the male estates and in 6 percent to 38 percent of female estates.

Furthermore, says Melissa Seckora of National Review, "Bellesiles has egregious problems in the areas of homicide data, gun censuses, reports on militia arms, hunting accounts, travel accounts, the opinions of the anti-Federalists, and laws governing guns."

According to the Boston Globe (October 3) the head of Emory's history department has demanded that Bellesiles write a detailed defense of his book. But his publisher, Knopf, has not withdrawn the new paperback edition.

Source: Melissa Seckora, "Disarming America," National Review, October 15, 2001; see also James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather, "Counting Guns in Early America," Northwestern Law & Economics Research Paper No. 01-1, Northwestern University School of Law, February 20, 2001.

For Lindgren/Heather text


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