NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Scholars Challenge Gun History

April 12, 2001

Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles recently published a book that disputed the long-held conviction that many colonial Americans owned guns. In "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," Bellesiles claims gun-ownership was rare back then.

His thesis was embraced by anti-gun activists, but a growing number of respected scholars from across the political spectrum are saying his research and conclusions are wrong.

  • They charge that "Arming America" is riddled with errors so enormous that they seriously undermine his work.
  • They argue that he has incorrectly tabulated probate records, failed to include facts that strongly argue the opposite case, and misquoted and miscited sources.
  • In relying on travel narratives as part of his research, he fails to mention references to guns contained in those narratives and omits dozens of other travelers who describe gun ownership, critics charge.
  • When referring to probate records, he claims that only 14.7 percent of adult American males owned guns -- while other scholars, consulting the same sources, find 54 percent of men and 18 percent of women owned firearms in the mid-1770s.

Bellesiles defends his work and promises to provide additional data to back up his findings - but has not yet reproduced evidence to silence his critics.

Source: Kimberley A. Strassel, "Scholars Take Aim at Gun History," Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2001.

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