- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

In 2000, when Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles published a prize-winning book that argued that firearm ownership was rare in early America, Clayton Cramer was one of the researchers who helped debunk those arguments.

Now, in “Armed America: The Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie,” Mr. Cramer documents the history of the nation’s long love affair with firearms.

The following are excerpts of a recent e-mail interview with Mr. Cramer, who lives near Boise, Idaho:

Question: How much of America’s legal, political and social views of firearms ownership was because of the nation’s British origins?

Answer: When the first colonists arrived here, the answer would be “only a little.” Gun ownership before 1689 was tightly regulated in Britain. The usual argument was that since the poor weren’t allowed to hunt anyway, they didn’t have a need for guns. But it wasn’t the hunting of game that concerned the English upper classes, but the fear of revolution.

America became a gun-owning society because of fear of an Indian attack, fear of an attack by Britain’s European enemies the Dutch Navy tried to invade Virginia, for example, on a couple of occasions in the 17th century and later fear of slave revolt. All of these led the colonial governments to impose militia duty and gun ownership on the free men (eventually, only free white men).

Hunting was very common. Hunting put meat on the table. Hunting was also common to protect livestock and people from the larger predators, and to deal with pests that damaged crops. A number of colonies required taxes to be paid partly in crow heads and squirrel pelts. The primary reason the colonists hunted, however, was for sport.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 enshrined a right to bear arms into English law. By the time of the American Revolution, English legal books such as Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England” described the right to arms for self-defense or for revolution as a right of Englishmen, and this reinforced the American experience that gun ownership was tied to the notion of citizenship.

Q: What was the role of firearms ownership by ordinary citizens in shaping the American Revolution?

A: It made it possible. It was more than a year after the start of the war before the U.S. was able to import firearms and ammunition from Europe, and Britain had embargoed all sales of guns and ammunition for more than a year before the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington, Mass. The Battle of Lexington, of course, happened because the British government attempted to seize cannon and gunpowder stored at Concord. Throughout the Revolution, the widespread ownership of guns throughout the colonies and the extensive gun-manufacturing industry of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, made it possible for the Americans to take on the best European army of the era and win (with a little help from the French).

Q: How did the frontier experience influence Americans’ attitudes toward firearms?

A: Fear of the American Indians and sometimes with good reason meant that every frontier settlement was heavily armed. Hunting seems also to have driven this high level of gun ownership. In looking through city directories for frontier Pennsylvania in the 18th and early 19th century, I was struck by how every little village had at least one gunsmith listed even when the village consisted of only a few dozen families.

Q: Advocates of gun-control laws sometimes argue that changes in social, economic and political circumstances have made the Second Amendment obsolete. Why do you disagree with that view?

A: The primary reason that five states requested a right to keep and bear arms be added to the Constitution was because of fear that the new national government might be taken over by people with tyrannical intentions. The people, therefore, needed to retain the ability to resist such a possibility. As James Madison observed in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

As we have seen in the 20th century, governments have not become more civilized, more humane or more decent since the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. More people have been murdered by their own governments in the 20th century than in all of the previous history of man. It amuses me endlessly to hear people compare George Bush to Adolf Hitler and decry what they claim is a fascist government and yet insist that there’s no reason for any civilian to own a gun.

Q: Why was Michael Bellesiles able to win the prestigious Bancroft Award for a book that, according to yourself and other critics like Northwestern University professor James Lindgren, was based on flawed or even fabricated evidence?

A: The dust jacket of Bellesiles’ book quotes Stewart Udall, “Thinking people who deplore Americans’ addiction to gun violence have been waiting a long time for this information.” Bellesiles told a story that intellectuals wanted to hear that guns were rare and tightly controlled in early America, and therefore the Second Amendment could not possibly be about an individual right to keep and bear arms. To have given Bellesiles’ book the careful examination such a startling claim deserved would have destroyed a fairy tale that the intellectuals wanted.

Q: You’ve got a master’s degree in history, you’ve taught constitutional history, you’ve written other books why were your criticisms of Mr. Bellesiles’ work initially ignored by many members of the academic establishment?

A: To borrow a metaphor from history, the historians “circled the wagons” in response to attack by barbarians who didn’t share their vision of a gunless America where there was almost no violence (one of Bellesiles’ claims). I found that I could flip open Bellesiles’ book at random, start checking claims and it was rare to get through a page without at least one claim being outright fraud, selective in its use of a quote or misleading because of what it left out.

Q: The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down the District of Columbia’s gun-control law, which was one of the strictest in the country. What impact do you think that ruling will have on gun violence in the District? And do you think the decision will be upheld by the Supreme Court?

A: It is very clear to me that the provisions of the law struck down by the Parker decision assuming that it isn’t overturned on appeal will probably reduce violent crime in the District. Don’t have your hopes set too high, however, because cultural factors are the larger determinant of murder rates. Boise, for example, has four or five murders a year in a city of almost 200,000. But we have almost no gun-control laws. Culture matters most.

Telling people that they can’t have a loaded and functional firearm available in their home for self-defense is criminal because it tells someone who intends robbery, rape or murder that the victims won’t be able to fight back.

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