Lies, Damn Lies, and Arming America

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So it turns out historian Michael Bellesiles, who wowed the intelligentsia with Arming America, made up a lot of the data he relies on to push his thesis that firearms ownership was rare in 18th-century America. Such outright duplicity is, one hopes, pretty rare in academia, making Bellesiles a sort of Stephen Glass of the scholarly world. But what’s really surprising is that so many people bought the argument in the first place” – that he had to be exposed as a fraud before people recognized how flimsy his case was. First, why would one expect 18th-century probate records to list firearms as a matter of course? Firearms are personal property that, then as now, are usually passed by transfers among the living. Would an examination of current probate records provide an accurate picture of how many Americans own firearms today? Second, it’s clear from contemporary accounts that gun ownership was quite widespread in the 18th century. Reading the Federalist the other day, I came across some illustrative passages. In No. 46, Madison, discussing the security of the people against an oppressive federal government, refers to “a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands,” and” the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.” I guess he hadn’t seen the probate records.

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