Michael Bellesiles and the Bogus NRA Conspiracy

Eugene [Volokh] quotes from an editor at the New Press who is peddling the ridiculous notion that [Michael] Bellesiles was a victim of an NRA conspiracy instead of someone who destroyed his own career by writing a book (Arming America) that did not hold up when some of us checked his evidence, including work based on hundreds of non-existent documents.

The idea that the NRA had anything substantial to do with the Bellesiles case is utter nonsense.

I have tried to think what I had ever heard about NRA involvement in the Bellesiles case. [This is all I came up with:]

1. Before the book came out, Charlton Heston criticized it in a column in an NRA magazine (after Heston had read an Economist article on the forthcoming book). Bellesiles more than effectively responded to Heston with a direct assault on the NRA, enlisting several dozen scholars for his public letter sent to the NRA.

2. Much later Clayton Cramer asked the NRA for a small travel grant to check Bellesiles’s sources in Eastern libraries and he was turned down.

3. Two years into the dispute, when it was nearly over, I read about a Senator attacking Bellesiles in a speech at the NRA convention in Atlanta. He appeared to be relying on (and seconding) news reports in the mainstream press.

4. Other than a review authored by Cramer in Shotgun News and some additional very derivative news articles updating members on developments in the press, that’s all I remember seeing or hearing from the NRA over the 2-3 years of the dispute.

I didn’t regularly see what the NRA sent to members and I doubt that any of the other relevant academics or administrators did either. If the NRA were involved in the Bellesiles affair in any significant way, I would have heard something about it.

Just what is it that the NRA is supposed to have done when it wouldn’t fund — even modestly – Clayton Cramer’s researching sources in the book?

And what is the process by which the NRA influenced the History Chair at Emory and Emory’s Provost to institute a formal investigation, or influenced Bellesiles’s colleagues at Emory to find against him, or influenced the outside panel to find against him, including Laurel Ulrich and Stanley Katz (a signatory to Bellesiles’ anti-NRA letter), or influenced the Provost at Columbia to instigate a review of the Bancroft Prize, or influenced me, or influenced Robert Churchill, or influenced Eric Monkkonen, or influenced the Wm & Mary Q. reviewers, including Randy Roth and Gloria Main?

From what I’ve seen from afar, the NRA mostly concentrates on three things: raising money, publishing magazines, and lobbying Congress.

The real question here is why the NRA mostly stayed out of an inquiry in which people with no knowledge of the dispute just assume they must have had a nontrivial role.

After the Bellesiles affair was over, I asked a law professor who had in the past received funding from the NRA why the NRA was so savvy to stay out of it and let the academics handle it in the normal way. The answer I got is that the NRA wasn’t savvy so much as it is suspicious of academics, whom they neither understand nor trust. If the NRA pays for something, they want to control the message — and most academics won’t take money on that basis.

Spreading patently ridiculous NRA conspiracy stories, as the New Press editor is doing, is irresponsible and frankly ahistorical. If the editor is honest, he or she will look into the basis for her claim and correct her misstatement.

It is ironic that a historian whose book spread unsupported and untrue stories about early America is now defended by an editor at the New Press who is spreading unsupported and untrue stories about the dispute over that book.

As we discovered in 2000, some people are incredibly gullible when they really, really want to believe.

UPDATE: BTW, here is part of the conclusion to my 2002 Yale review of the book:

Arming America is an impressive book, especially to those not versed in the materials that Bellesiles wrote about. It is extremely well-written for a book that covers so many apparent specifics of gun ownership and use. Superb historians praised it on its release. Yet even from the beginning,
there were those who found disturbing differences between Arming America and its sources. As time has passed and other scholars have entered the debate, these errors—which once looked like such serious
defects that they could not be true—have been confirmed. . . .

The book and the scandal it generated are hard to understand. How could Bellesiles count guns in about a hundred Providence wills that never existed, count guns in San Francisco County inventories that were
apparently destroyed in 1906, report national means that are mathematically impossible, change the condition of guns in a way that fits his thesis, misreport the counts of guns in censuses or militia reports, have over a 60% error rate in finding guns in Vermont estates, and have a 100% error rate in
finding homicide cases in the Plymouth records he cites? We may never know the truth of why or how Arming America made such basic errors, but make them it did.

As scholars, we must content ourselves with correcting errors and searching for the realities of gun ownership, use, and social meaning. Beyond that, we might try to figure out how to avoid a repetition of this unfortunate episode.

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