- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Michael Bellesiles' book "Arming America" won praise from gun-control advocates for "demolishing the myth" behind the individual right to gun ownership, with reviewers calling the book "exciting" and "valuable and thought-provoking."
Now Mr. Bellesiles' book, which contended that private gun ownership was uncommon in early America, is being called something else: a fraud.
Several scholars, including some who favor gun-control laws, say the research in "Arming America" is inaccurate or even deliberately deceptive.
They say the book misinterprets Colonial documents, misquotes early federal laws, distorts historical accounts and cites San Francisco records that officials agree were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
Gun rights activists denounced the Bellesiles book when it was published in September 2000. In recent months, liberals, too, have turned against Mr. Bellesiles.
Serious errors in "Arming America" have been exposed in the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and pundit Russell Baker has dubbed Mr. Bellesiles "the Milli Vanilli of the academic community."
"There's absolutely no question in my mind of intentional deception on [Mr. Bellesiles] part," says Clayton Cramer, author of two books on the history of American gun laws, who says he's found "hundreds and hundreds" of errors in "Arming America."
"Simple mistakes will not explain what's gone on here. This is more than typos. This is massive misrepresentation of his own sources," Mr. Cramer said, calling Mr. Bellesiles' 603-page book "a target-rich environment for finding deception or fraud."
On his Web site www.claytoncramer.com Mr. Cramer shows how Mr. Bellesiles' falsely contended that a 1792 federal law required Congress to supply guns to militia members, when in fact the law required militia members to provide their own guns.
It is an important distinction, according to legal scholars, because private ownership of guns for militia service is linked to the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms." By saying the 1792 law made the federal government not individual citizens the source of militia guns, "Arming America" struck at the heart of Second Amendment protections.
"Bellesiles made no secret of his political agenda," author Richard Poe says. "He stated it plainly. And he apparently bent the facts to suit his agenda, with extravagant disdain for the truth."
The most serious charge against Mr. Bellesiles, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, is that he based his book in part on records that do not exist.
Mr. Bellesiles said he had researched more than 10,000 probate inventories lists of estate items included in official wills and found that, contrary to popular belief, guns were uncommon in early American homes.
"America's gun culture is an invented tradition," Mr. Bellesiles wrote, disputing frontier legends of the pioneer cabin with a musket hanging above the hearth.
His assertion that gun ownership was rare in America until the mid-19th century made Mr. Bellesiles a hero of gun-control advocates, who praised him for "debunk[ing] the mythology propagated by the gun lobby."
Michael Barnes, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said Mr. Bellesiles "has removed one more weapon in the gun lobby's arsenal of fallacies against common-sense gun laws."
In April, Mr. Bellesiles was awarded the Bancroft Prize, perhaps the most prestigious award for an American historian. Repeatedly, "Arming America" drew praise for Mr. Bellesiles' heavily footnoted use of probate records, which The Washington Post called the author's "freshest and most interesting source."
But in many cases, researchers say, that evidence is nonexistent.
In the most glaring instance, Mr. Bellesiles cites guns listed in probate records for San Francisco between 1849 and 1859. However, authorities say, all such records were destroyed in the city's 1906 earthquake.
"All official probate records were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire because the city hall burned down," a reference librarian at the city's Sutro Library told National Review's Melissa Seckora.
Like other critics, Miss Seckora found that Mr. Bellesiles changed his story when confronted with questions about his research. Mr. Cramer says Mr. Bellesiles has "changed his story three times" about misquoting the 1792 Militia Act.
In recent months, "Arming America" has attracted a growing swarm of researchers who have found other serious errors. Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren says Mr. Bellesiles "counted guns in about 100 wills [in Colonial Rhode Island] where people died without wills."
Although researchers often disagree over the interpretation of data, scholars say, making up sources is an offense almost unheard of among serious historians.
"Everyone makes some mistakes," Bentley College history professor Joyce Malcolm said. "It's just in this case, the mistakes were wholesale. The book is just riddled with errors. It was so astounding, as a historian, I felt my jaw drop."
Mrs. Malcolm, whose 1994 book "To Keep and Bear Arms" traced the British roots of the Second Amendment, said the possibility Mr. Bellesiles fabricated data "takes your breath away."
"All his mistakes tend to support his thesis, every single one of them," she said. "It's hard to believe it's in good faith."
Mr. Bellesiles did not return telephone calls seeking comment on "Arming America." In the November issue of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) newsletter, however, he replied to his "ideologically charged" critics, saying he was the victim of "personal attacks," including "hateful, threatening, and expletive-laced phone calls, mail, e-mail and faxes."
In his OAH article, Mr. Bellesiles said many of his notes for "Arming America" were destroyed when his Emory office was flooded in April 2000 and that he "had to reconstruct where I read the probate files from memory." He said an upcoming issue of the William and Mary Quarterly devoted to the "Arming America" controversy "will explore alternative readings of the evidence."
The nature of the charges against Mr. Bellesiles causes some academics to insist on anonymity in discussing what one professor called "the worst historical scandal in memory."
James Melton, chairman of the Emory University history department, has asked Mr. Bellesiles to answer his accusers in detail.
Mr. Bellesiles must "defend himself and the integrity of his scholarship immediately," Mr. Melton told the Boston Globe in October, adding: "Depending upon his response, the university will respond appropriately."
Emory's demand that Mr. Bellesiles' defend his work is ominous, author John Lott says.
"The fact that Emory is asking him to respond to these critics is something I don't remember a university asking a professor to do," says Mr. Lott, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, whose 1998 book "More Guns, Less Crime" stirred debate over firearms laws. "I imagine Emory would be forced to take some kind of dramatic response, if [the accusations of fraud are] true."


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