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Ready to aim

ARMED AMERICA: THE STORY OF HOW AND WHY GUNS BECAME AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE

By Clayton E. Cramer, Nelson Current, $26.99, 320 pages

In 1996, Michael Bellesiles published a paper in the Journal of American History. The thesis: Early Americans rarely owned firearms, and manufacturer marketing and activist lobbying created today's gun culture. Four years later, Mr. Bellesiles turned the paper into a book, "Arming America."

The claim, obviously, was false. When researchers discovered he'd (at best) grossly misinterpreted document after document -- and even claimed to review records destroyed decades earlier -- he resigned his job as an Emory University professor. Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize it had awarded Mr. Bellesiles and asked for the award money back.

One good thing came from all this, though. The initially positive reaction to "Arming America" stunned gun-rights supporter, historian and blogger Clayton Cramer. He decided to set the record straight, and the result is the thorough and well written "Armed America."

The new thesis: Guns are "as American as apple pie." Three sections, covering Colonial, revolutionary and early republican America, show just how that happened.

Mr. Cramer writes in a clear if dry style, patiently cataloguing example after example of guns' historical prevalence. The book weighs in at a tidy 243 pages (excluding the bibliography and footnotes, but including the helpful gun-terms glossary) yet demands some effort and concentration.

It will surprise even pro-gun readers how pervasive firearms were in Colonial days. By law, white men liable for militia service often had to own guns, but they were far from the only demographic that chose to. Well before the Declaration of Independence, women had guns. Free and even slave blacks had guns. Soon after contact with whites, American Indians became dependent on firearms for hunting.

Widespread gun possession led to control efforts then as today. Governments could ban black gun possession, but seldom with complete success; "grand juries in South Carolina complained that masters were bringing guns to church, as the law required, then handing them to slaves to hold during services."

In the late 1650s, Virginia prohibited gun sales to Indians. But the neighboring colonies didn't follow suit, and a year later the ban died -- the tribes were getting guns anyway, and leaders reasoned Virginia might as well receive some of the business. The law returned in 1665 but worked poorly, and the next decade, selling guns to Indians became a capital offense.

In the late-17th century, American whites settled on making gun acquisition difficult for hostile tribes but easy for friendly ones. Prohibition just didn't work.

Despite Mr. Cramer's own pro-gun leanings, however, he doesn't neglect firearms' downsides. For example, he cites one estimate that the Colonial New England crime rate rose as high as 11-14 times today's figure. Accidents, he notes, were also far from uncommon.

When the Revolutionary War's first months rolled around, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress bought guns from private citizens to supply the few firearm-less militia members. There were enough left, records indicate, that some non-militia homeowners defended themselves against British assault.

Mr. Cramer admits that the military did experience some notable firearm shortages -- not typically of total guns in the region, but of guns in militia as opposed to private hands, or of specific weapons. Accurate, hunting-friendly rifles were plentiful, easily reloadable muskets less so.

Even in postwar years, the militia laws requiring gun ownership continued. The centralized power a large standing army would hold worried early Americans: "The militia as the best defense of a free state was, almost from the beginning, a dream, but a potent dream -- and gun ownership was part of that dream."

That dream died, but a widespread gun culture survived. Pistol manufacturing in particular rose significantly, and after the Civil War, Union veterans founded the National Rifle Association.

The only problem with "Armed America" is its framing as a refutation to Mr. Bellesiles. Nevertheless, what makes Mr. Cramer's work important is not that it debunks Mr. Bellesiles yet again, but that it explores the entire process Mr. Bellesiles ignored.

The introduction extensively documents Mr. Bellesiles' fraud, and in the final chapters Mr. Cramer distractingly bolds references to documents that Mr. Bellesiles misused. But through most of the book, Mr. Cramer mercifully stays away from the now-waning controversy.

All considered, "Armed America" proves a must-read. The author sets aside his beliefs to explore history, conceding evidence against his thesis, noting when the available records are unclear and admitting that guns have done bad as well as good things for America. He dedicates an entire chapter to post-Revolution gun violence. As a result the book is readable, believable and fair.

There's no doubt other scholars will criticize "Armed America," but everyone interested in Second Amendment history should read the work and take it seriously.

Robert VerBruggen is the incoming assistant book editor for The Washington Times.

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