Monday, October 16, 2000

Book aims to debunk gun culture

        Here's some exciting news: We Americans used to be terrible shots.

        Our men treated militia service as a joke or an annoyance. Many lacked guns of their own, despite a 1792 law requiring citizen-soldiers to have them.

        Our frontier farmers didn't take guns to the field. Their sons weren't raised with rifles in hand. From Colonial times to the mid-1800s, firearms didn't even work well: They took forever to load and couldn't be aimed.

        In short, guns were not central to the national identity. They became so only with the Civil War.

Provocative findings
               That's the premise behind a new book called Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael Bellesiles of Emory University.

        His research is a revelation. I'm not against gun ownership, but I do think it's useful to know from whence we came. If guns weren't always as American as apple pie, they don't have to remain so.

        Mr. Bellesiles' sources include personal property records, government gun inventories, military correspondence, travel journals, Congressional records and popular literature.

        His 10-year quest began with a curious discovery. While reviewing old probate records for an unrelated project, he noticed guns were rarely mentioned among the property of deceased settlers. They could have given away their firearms before dying, but such bequests still would have been mentioned in their wills.

        From 1765 to 1790, guns were listed in only 14 percent of 1,000 probate records from the New England and Pennsylvania frontiers.

        Poring over thousands of other documents, Mr. Bellesiles assembled a new portrait of early America, sprinkled with telling anecdotes about our collective wimpiness with guns.

Unarmed Americans
               When colonists fussed, they generally did so without weapons. When men fought duels, they tended to look ridiculous. In 1826, for instance, Henry Clay of Kentucky tried to duel with John Randolph of Virginia. Their shots kept going wild, so they gave up and shook hands.

        The federal government was forever scrambling to find arms for citizens during times of crisis. Getting people to practice was another problem. Around 1818, William Henry Harrison even proposed a Constitutional amendment to teach gun-handling in grade schools.

        Contrary to myth, Kentucky riflemen didn't win the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. That was done with cannon, Mr. Bellesiles reports. The Kentucky militia showed up with just 700 firearms for 2,368 men.

        I shared this account with two members of the Ole Caintuckee Primitives, a Kentucky group that recreates pioneer encampments.

        “That's the first book I've ever heard that's acknowledged the canonry,” said Mike Zwosta of Lewis County.

        Still, he wasn't buying the notion that guns were rare.

        “Would you live on the Kentucky frontier without a firearm? Would you live now without a car?” he asked. “Every rural Kentuckian, just like it is now, had their own firearm.”

        I agree: It sounds logical. But just saying the words doesn't make them true. Mr. Bellesiles has done the research. Pro-gun rhetoric will never be the same.



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