Arming America

Important correction:
To the best of my knowledge the contents of article below is not the truth.  On the contrary, it seems that author Bellesiles has bent his 'facts' more than just a little to make them fit his thesis. A recent addendum to the original book review in a Danish newspaper states that it is just another example of how too many "historians" try to conquer fame by distorting history.
   However, so far I've decided to let the piece stay posted to serve as a warning and a reminder of how difficult it may be to discern fact from fiction in today's writings on history.
  Other popular and bestselling historians have been caught tampering with the thuth, e.g. John Ellis (who never served in Vietnam); and Stephen Ambrose and Doris K. Goodwin who both published other, lesser known, historians' material under their own names - a disgusting but very frequent fact.
   But perhaps the biggest lies of all are told in politics, cf. former right-wing journalist "historian" David Brock, now turned professed left-wing confessor of fabricated lies about Pres. Clinton:
   "Troopergate" (four former police officers committed perjury against Pres. Clinton) and "The Arkansas Project" (the endless Whitewater investigation) were examples of a system of lies invented by ultra-Republicans and orchestrated by Brock, he now admits in a recent book "Blinded by the Right".  The "infamation" of Anita Hill was another of Brock's projects as was the welcome emergence of Paula Jones.
   Brock now claims that he regrets his propagandist activities and has sent a written apology to Pres. Clinton and scorned wife Hilary Clinton.  Still, his contributions to history should not be slighted - apparently McCarthyism was not a singular event.

March 2002
Erik Moldrup

Here's my original article:

One of the recurrent features of the historical research in the 1990s is that of turning old beliefs upside down (in Denmark as well as in the US).  Young historians have been able to regard at arm’s length many of the myths that earlier generations considered pure gospel.  Like the myth of  the right to bear firearms  being “as American as apple pie”.  Everybody knows that the pioneers conquered, cultivated, and civilized the wilderness with guns.

Not so exactly, says historian Michael A. Bellesiles in his book "Arming America. The Origins of a National Gun Culture" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York).  In a very convincing way Bellesiles disproves the belief that Americans have always been armed.

Bellesiles’ hunt for accuracy started when in a project concerning the contents of the estates people left behind when they died he found that arms were seldom listed as a possession.  A further investigation into the archives from the early 1600s into the 1900s reveal that in the beginning of the period only 14 percent of American homes possessed a firearm, and half of those were obsolete and of no use.

A few statistics:
- in the years 1801-15 there were a total of 48 killings in all of the US, and of those
  only 10 involved firearms;
- in the classic "Western" period from 1876 to 1890 the number was 166 of which
  only half involved firearms;
- in other words: the American past is not a matter of “shoot or get killed” – most
  Americans didn’t own a gun.

It is true, indeed, that America has had to fight several wars: the War for Independence; the War of 1812; the Mexican-American War; and the Civil War; but it may be news to some that the volunteers who gathered for these wars most often didn’t bring their own guns – primarily because they didn’t own one.  And apart from very few Davy Crocketts, the common soldier wasn’t a good shot.

The Civil War changed this: the dismissed soldiers were encouraged to keep their firearms in case of a future war, but it is interesting to note that the numerous manufacturers of firearms had to close down when the war ended even if time would soon prove the old rifles out of date and thus of no use.  Americans were not interested in acquiring substitute firearms.

The campaign for “Arming America” started exactly when the rifle syndicates felt they were losing ground.  At the same time dime novels glorifying the heroes (and sometimes even the villains) of the “Old West” started generating a positive view on guns and their "admirable" (ab)users: Billy the Kid, Jesse James,Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Harding...

The facts are that even the most notorious of outlaws didn’t kill more than a few, and they had to stand close to their opponents to make a hit due to the low accuracy of the handguns at the time (approx. 20 feet).  Besides, people were out of practice.  The defense against Native Americans was left to the professionals: the US Army and the British army before them.

Therefore, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the National Rifle Association cleverly exploited the paranoia and fear that followed the increase in crimes by pointing to the old tradition of guns to defend oneself.  To put it in Bellesiles’ words:

“We got it all wrong. The present has created the myth of a non-existent American past to justify and accept the present [use of firearms].”

Michael Bellesiles teaches History at Emory University in Atlanta.

/September 2000
Erik Moldrup