MSNBC’s Harris-Perry on my gun research: “The minutia of . . . replicating data turned into a politically consequential battle that shifted the discourse on guns in America”

On MSNBC over the weekend, Melissa Harris-Perry had some very kind words to say about some of my research a decade ago on guns in early America and the errors of Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America:


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After a half-minute set-up, Harris-Perry discusses my work until about the 2:11 mark.

Here is the transcript of Harris-Perry’s comments:

[I]t`s not just sports where knowing the rules of the inside game can make all the difference. Let me take you to the original Nerdland, the academy, where inside fights rarely make the news, but sometimes the topics pack enough political heat to make professors into headliners. Take this scandal. In 2000, a remarkable piece of academic work was published by the then much respected Emory University historian, professor Michael Bellesiles. In his book, “Arming America,” he used hundreds of old documents to prove that gun ownership was uncommon in the 18th century. He went on to say that given the rarity of gun ownership, there is no way the Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to ensure individual gun ownership rights. It was a moment of triumph in the gun control debate, when data, not polemic, proved the point.

Except it was not true. In an epic academic takedown a year later, a law professor from Northwestern University, James Lindgren, went through hundreds of pages of Bellesiles`s footnotes and found that much of the data were falsified. In fact, there were far more guns in earlier America than Bellesiles claimed. And Professor Bellesiles resigned from his tenured job, and was stripped of his book awards.

But most damning of all, the research he`d hoped would make a case for gun control only served to bolster the claims of the NRA.

It`s an example of inside baseball. The minutia of academic footnotes and the insiders game of replicating data turned into a politically consequential battle that shifted the discourse on guns in America.

She is referring to my co-authored Wm & Mary article and my Yale review of Arming America. As many of you remember, other researchers made significant contributions to the debate, especially Clayton Cramer, who was the first to find significant problems with Bellesiles’s research.

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