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Loaded Words By Michael Korda

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

With apologies to noted 19th century Western artist, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819 - 1905), this is how Michael A. Bellesiles is trying to repaint American history--as an America where our forebearers "didn`t own guns, didn`t know how to use them and didn`t hunt."

The press treatment of Michael Bellesiles`
Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture
shows that almost no topic is more subject to the media`s unwitting biases.
Outside the major media markets of the United States--that is, in most of the country beyond the cities of the liberal elite like New York and Washington, D.C.--private gun ownership is a simple fact of life. People are neither ashamed nor apprehensive about owning a shotgun, or teaching their kids or grandkids to shoot with a .22, or going bird shooting or deer hunting, or having a pistol in the house. For many, perhaps even a majority, of non-urban Americans, those things are as much a normal, matter-of-fact part of exurban or rural existence as raking leaves, mowing the lawn, and buying Girl Scout Cookies.

Within the media, however, there persists a constant, though perhaps unwitting, preoccupation with guns and gun laws, understandably prone to rear its head at times of tragedy--the school shootings at Columbine or the episode at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Events like these focus attention on fundamental questions about gun control and the Second Amendment to the Constitution, commonly referred to as the "right to bear arms," which in any case are treated skeptically in the media at the best of times. The media tend automatically to stigmatize gun ownership, or simply to dismiss the whole subject as if those who support private ownership of firearms are eccentric, dangerous, or linked in some way to right wing "militia" fanatics and mass killers--such as those folks who brought us Columbine or Waco. For example, when the revered New York Times recently paid attention to the subject of gun ownership, it was in the form of a long piece in the November 26, 2000, issue of The New York Times Magazine on people who own and shoot .50-caliber rifles, which can pierce a three-and-a half-inch-thick cast-iron manhole cover at 200 yards, as if the weapon, and the people whose hobby this is, were representative of the average gun owner. With such preconceptions, the press tends to make a burning issue out of something that, most of the time, is barely lukewarm in most of the country.

This bias, I believe, has both a regional and, to a certain degree, a class component. Attitudes toward guns differ radically from group to group and from region to region, just as the laws regulating gun ownership vary from state to state. For example, Connecticut, which used to manufacture the lion`s share of America`s firearms, is loath to damage further a local industry by making it difficult for its residents to buy one, so up until a few years ago, a driver`s license was enough to buy a pistol there, whereas in neighboring New York, you need a permit, which may be easy, or hard, or impossible to get, depending on the views of your county. Crossing state lines is always a problem. If I want to take a course in combat-pistol shooting in New Hampshire, I have to look at a map first: I can drive from Poughkeepsie up to Hoosick Falls in New York (no problem, I have a New York state permit to carry a pistol), then cross the state line into Vermont at Bennington (still no problem, for Vermont, quaintly, has no laws regulating handguns), then on into New Hampshire, for which I have a nonresident pistol permit. All I have to do is steer clear of Massachusetts, where I would be subject to a mandatory one-year prison sentence for possession of a handgun.

The class issue is more complicated than the regional issue, but in my experience, it can be summed up by saying that most Americans regard the groups they don`t like as the ones who shouldn`t be armed. Thus, wealthy upper-class people with a gun cabinet full of expensive sporting weapons are eager to see their poorer neighbors deprived of their Saturday night specials. People living in Beverly Hills, with hundred-thousand-dollar security systems and a Colt Python .357 by the bed, are eager to disarm poor African-Americans and Hispanics. And suburbanites (who aren`t known as hunters and live close to each other) are determined to take guns out of the hands of their rural neighbors (for whom hunting is a legitimate pastime and who live in the boonies, where a Winchester 12-gauge pump shotgun may be a comforting item to have at hand on a dark night when there`s noise at the window and the nearest cop may be an hour away).

Given this complex reality of gun ownership in America today-- that the media are in general fraught with an anti-gun bias that is not always shared by the rest of the country--it is hardly surprising that when Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University, was published last September it was widely lauded in major reviews, which rolled out all autumn. Bellesiles examines, and in the end attempts to demythologize, America`s image of life in colonial America and the role of the gun in it. The book puts forward the thesis, supported by copious notes, that Americans of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries didn`t hunt that much, rarely owned firearms in the first place, and, moreover, were poor marksmen. Bellesiles further asserts, contrary to popular belief and our national historical imagination, that the colonial militias were unarmed and untrained, but that, nevertheless, the Second Amendment was written for the sole purpose of supporting these useless bodies of men, and not with any thought of protecting private ownership of firearms.

Naturally, Arming America attracted positive attention from those who tend to see firearms as the devil`s right hand and perhaps the deepest flaw in American political reality since slavery. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote that Bellesiles "provides overwhelming evidence that our view of the gun is...[a] deep superstition." Former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum, also the author of a book on U.S. drug policy and one on the Coors brewery dynasty, writing in the Chicago Tribune, called Arming America an "exciting new book....that absolutely devastate[s] the myth of the gun in early America." And in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the 18th- century historian Fred Anderson, author of a recent tome on the Seven Years` War, said that the book is a "great achievement....With thorough scholarship, lucid writing and impassioned argument, Bellesiles offers a brief against the myths that align freedom with the gun." Similar, though occasionally less sweepingly glowing, notices came in newspapers everywhere, from Indianapolis, Denver, Dallas, and Cincinnati, among others.

Naturally, Arming America attracted positive attention from those who tend to see firearms as the devil`s right hand and perhaps the deepest flaw in American political reality since slavery.

Given the nearly unanimous praise of the reviews (more than 50) and that Bellesiles`s thesis was accepted not just as gospel but as long-awaited gospel, it may be of some legitimate interest to look more closely at the book itself. The historical arguments Bellesiles makes in Arming America are being fiercely attacked in gun activist circles by firearms scholars and gun owners, notwithstanding the extent of his footnotes. That most reviews accepted his claims may merely point to the media`s inherent bias against guns and its willingness to accept scholarship, however debatable, regarding anything that deflates the conventional wisdom surrounding firearms.

Bellesiles`s claims that there were few capable gunsmiths or gun makers in colonial America, that guns were rare, hard to come by, and ineffective, are, and have been for years, contradicted by far more observers of American culture than he quotes in his book. The independent U.S. historian Clayton Cramer compiled a list of 118 gunsmiths and gunmakers in New York and New England alone during the early colonial period. Yet in the Los Angeles Times review, Anderson wrote, "American `gunsmiths` [Anderson`s quotation marks] seldom made weapons but tended to be general-purpose metalworkers who mainly repaired guns when they broke. . . ."

Bellesiles supports his thesis of the scarcity of firearms by looking at probate records and by studying the inventories of firearms carried out by certain states like Massachusetts, and concludes--to his own surprise--that there were far fewer guns logged in documents than one would have suspected. It was precisely this methodology that was hailed as such fresh and exciting new research. Dan Baum`s review in the Chicago Tribune cited probate records as part of a "fascinating array of sources" that "bolster [Bellesiles`s] argument."

But this seems to me a dubious method, since in the 18th century it seems unlikely that Massachusetts or any other state would have tried to inventory the ownership of privately owned weapons, as opposed to those owned by or on loan to members of the militia, an institution that Bellesiles also attempts to debunk or, as Garry Wills`s review put it, "deflate the myth of the self reliant and self-armed virtuous yeoman of the Revolutionary militias."

Fact is, the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century state militias have always come in for bad press--partly because of class prejudice, since their armies contained a high proportion of poor people and rural bumpkins. But they were not, as Bellesiles would have us believe, just a bunch of bumbling clowns. Undoubtedly, the militia was not any match (or substitute) for a trained army, and was often poorly armed and led, but it must be borne in mind that these criticisms were made most loudly by those like Alexander Hamilton, who thought the United States ought to have a professional army with regular officers in the British tradition (just what most of the founding fathers wanted to avoid), and also overlooked the fact that it was the militia`s troops that did so much damage to the British regulars on their way back to Boston from Lexington and Concord, whence the British had gone to seize militia military supplies. This would suggest that a substantial number of the militia not only were armed but knew how to shoot. At Bunker Hill, the militia stood up to the British bravely, inflicted heavy losses on them, and gave way only when they ran out of ammunition and the British infantry advanced with bayonets fixed.

So it would seem, according to Bellesiles, that the militia was good for nothing. Inexplicably, in defiance of that, the framers of the Bill of Rights wrote the Second Amendment only in order to ensure that weapons would be available to the militia, not to the general public. Of course, the Second Amendment has always been a subject of vigorous debate, and seldom have so few words--"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed"--produced such a mass of commentary. It has given birth to almost as much speculation and disagreement as the Bible. A good deal of this is of the order of trying to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and it is only too likely that the Second Amendment seems ambiguous for the very good reason that its drafters meant it to be. The founding fathers, if they knew nothing else, knew how to write clear English, and if they had wanted to ban the private ownership of firearms, or to limit ownership of firearms to those who served in the militia, no doubt they would have found a clear way of saying so. That they did not is, self-evidently, because the idea did not occur to them. They drew up the Bill of Rights to safeguard, protect, and defend the liberties of Americans, not to limit and circumscribe them, and nothing in 18th-century American experience (or the Revolutionary War) would have led them to believe that it was a bad idea for a citizen to keep a gun at home, or a good idea to let government decide on whether or not he could do so. The words of the Second Amendment are, no doubt, a pious sop to the idea that the average citizen ought to be a member of his local militia, but hardly more.

[A]rming America is another familiar example of history being rewritten to make the past conform to the media`s prevailing opinion of the present.

What is disturbing is that in his book Bellesiles appears to be attacking the militia for his own cause, trying, as it were, to retrofit past centuries as a means of showing that the attitudes of many Americans toward guns and gun owners in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have few roots in the historical past, and make little sense. Bellesiles derives the American obsession with firearms from the "historical coincidence" that occurred when aggressive selling techniques on the part of early firearms mass-manufacturers like Samuel Colt coincided with the Civil War and its increased demand for firearms. Bellesiles would have us believe that the gun had only a minor place in American life until the mid-19th-century gun manufacturers invented a need for it where there was none.

Ultimately, the point is not so much whether Bellesiles is right or wrong, but rather that nearly all the newspapers that reviewed his book relied on writers, historians, academics, or journalists with little or no expertise in the specialized field of the history of American firearm manufacturing and, for the most part, with a bias against the private ownership of guns.

The politics of book reviewing-- that books are at the very least unimaginatively assigned for review--is of course, an old complaint, and not one limited to books about guns. The process by which book reviews are assigned carries with it an almost subliminal agenda on the part of the publication. They are often handed out to people whose opinions coincide with that of the editorial page of the newspaper or who are well known to the book-review editor so that it`s easy enough to guess what they`ll write. Books with ideas that are "unpopular," or are deemed to be "reactionary," are often given to people who are reasonably certain to attack and belittle those ideas, rather than to anyone who might have some kind of expertise in the field, or who might be sympathetic to the author`s viewpoint.

This is not terribly surprising, for it`s no trick to produce a good or a bad review for any book. You need only to send it to somebody who knows or admires the author, or agrees with him or her, to produce a positive one; or someone who you know holds the opposite point of view to ensure a bad review. This is partly due to the unwitting biases of book-review editors, and partly a matter of convenience. As the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, I published Ronald Reagan`s autobiography in 1990, and it was amazing how many newspapers sent it out for review to people whose politics were the opposite of Reagan`s--Garry Wills, Maureen Dowd, and Richard Reeves, among others.

Ultimately, the point is not so much whether Bellesiles is right or wrong, but rather that nearly all the newspapers that reviewed his book relied on writers, historians, academics, or journalists with little or no expertise in the specialized field of the history of American firearm manufacturing and, for the most part, with a bias against the private ownership of guns.

Richard Nixon, several of whose books I edited, once wrote me, about a book of my own, "Join the club! As I read the sh--ty review of your book I realized again that when the editors of [a major book review] don`t like the thesis of a book--fiction or non fiction--they pick a reviewer who shares their prejudices." Needless to say, this is not a phenomenon limited to one newspaper, and also needless to say it works in both directions; when they do like the thesis of a book, they can send it to somebody who will praise it.

It would seem that Arming America represented what a lot of book-review editors already believed, or thought other people ought to believe, so instead of sending it out for review to people who might have argued with some of Bellesiles`s conclusions--and even more important, his methods of research--they simply sent it out to people who would treat it as gospel. Such people would not be hard to find. On the other hand, R.L. Wilson, the distinguished author of 30 books on American firearms history, wrote in a letter to me that Bellesiles`s book is "an example of gross bias against gun culture" and "a shocking deceit." Others on the side of gun owners and traditional thinkers about America`s firearms history have provided enough attacks against Bellesiles`s accuracy to fill several large cartons with detailed refutations of his research (I know because the cartons are on my floor as I write): Among others, firearms historian Merrill Lindsay and Don Kates, an author, scholar of firearms history, and lawyer specializing in Second Amendment issues, have produced scholarship that would seem to contradict Bellesiles`s assertions.

Perhaps Professor Bellesiles should have begun his research by reading the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper, in which the ability to shoot accurately is highly admired, and gun ownership on the frontier--then in upstate New York--was a natural thing in view of Indian raids and warfare with the French. But no. What we are seeing with Arming America is another familiar example of history being rewritten to make the past conform to the media`s prevailing opinion of the present. In the meantime, those who read this book should do so with a cautious and skeptical eye, since, like all sweeping generalizations about the past, it reflects the prejudices of the present, and proves once again that the sheer number of notes does not necessarily make a case and that book reviewing is no more objective than any other form of writing.

Editor`s note: Michael Bellesiles, author of Arming America, did not reply to an invitation to respond to this article when it originally appeared in the February, 2001 issue of Brill`s Content.

About the Author

Michael Korda is the legendary Editor-In-Chief of Simon & Schuster, a position he has held for more than three decades. He is the author of Charmed Lives, several bestselling novels, the number one bestseller Power!, and Another Life: A Memoir of Other People.


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