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October 29, 2002


Early America was vastly different from the handgun-happy images one sees on television, in movies, and in the pages of gun magazines. Serious historians have documented that early Americans had little interest in guns. Until the mid-1800s, owning a gun was surprisingly uncommon. Those who owned firearms almost always owned long guns.

Historian Michael Bellesiles, for example, examined more than a thousand probate records from northern New England and Pennsylvania filed from 1765 to 1790. He found that only 14 percent of household inventories included firearms–and more than half of these were inoperable.22 Colonial settlers got meat mostly from domesticated animals like cows and pigs. When they wanted wild game, they bought it from native Americans or professional hunters, most of whom trapped their prey.


UPDATE: John Rosenberg writes that the Bellesiles dispute is just another round in the culture wars:

At the risk of oversimplification, on one side of the increasingly barbed cultural barricades are those who believe truth is whatever serves justice, i.e., women, minorities, critics of American foreign policy, gun control. . . .

On the other side of the cultural divide are those still dedicated to an older “correspondence theory” of truth as reflecting, however imperfectly, some objective even if not completely knowable reality. They are indifferent to, or at least not transfixed by, the “political implications” of the work and more concerned with whether the book’s basic honesty and whether the history profession relaxes its professed standards for politically correct interpretations.

He has a lengthy discussion of the Bellesiles affair, the Wiener article, and the context in which they appear that’s well worth reading if you’re interested in these sorts of things. He also notes the disparity between the coverage afforded by the Emory Wheel and that contained in publications that one might expect to be more interested:

It is all the more remarkable that the NYT has dropped the ball on Bellesiles because it claims special pre-eminence in covering “culture,” including especially its largely home town publishing industry. Knopf, which published Arming America, is just across town; the New York Review of Books, which gave Bellesiles a glowing review that has not been retracted, is just uptown; Columbia University, which administers the Bancroft Prize Bellesiles won and still has, is farther uptown; and of course the New York Times Book Review, source of another glowing, unretracted review, is right down the hall.

Perhaps these august institutions (well, except for the NYT, which is, after all, a daily) have been waiting for Emory’s decision and will weigh in soon.

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