Thursday, November 02, 2000

Scholars squabble over guns




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        The more people argue over America's gun history, the murkier it becomes. No wonder we lack a consensus for the future. Scholars can't even agree on the written records of the past.

        Several readers took issue with my recent column on Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. In the book, history professor Michael Bellesiles argues guns were uncommon before the Civil War.

        Some responses:

        “To make believe that America's early settlers were seldom armed is ludicrous. How did they protect themselves? How did they eat, especially pioneers in newer territory?”

        — Walt Hodge, Dillonvale

        “You should be aware that Bellesiles has been roundly criticized in the historical profession for abuse of evidence, and that most historians agree that guns were so prevalent in early America that they didn't need to be passed on in a will.”

        — Larry Schweikart, professor of history, University of Dayton

        Several readers sent me critical essays by Clayton E. Cramer, a software engineer and author of history books.

        As it turns out, Mr. Cramer and Mr. Bellesiles have been trading barbs over the latter's research since 1996.
       

False picture of past?
               Arming America misquotes some sources and ignores others, resulting in a false picture of the country's past, Mr. Cramer says.

        The author counters that his research took 10 years and was examined by eight historians before publication. It is Mr. Cramer, not he, who takes quotes out of context, Mr. Bellesiles says.

        Aargh. It never pays to get in the middle of such squabbles. Nevertheless, I asked Mr. Bellesiles to respond.

        Here's an example:

        Arming America quotes the Militia Act of 1792 as follows: “Every citizen so enrolled, shall ... be constantly provided with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints ... ” and other items.

        Mr. Cramer remembered the statute differently.

        Using the online resources of the Library of Congress, he looked up the congressional journal from that period.
       

Bills vs. laws
               “What do you know?” Mr. Cramer wrote in an e-mail last week. “The quote is not just out of context, it's actually been altered to say just the opposite of what it actually said!”

        This is the accurate citation, according to Mr. Cramer:

        “That every citizen so enrolled ... shall ... provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt ... ” etc.

        The difference is important. The first version says men were “to be provided” with firearms, the second that they had to bring their own. If Mr. Cramer is correct, guns could not have been uncommon.

        Mr. Bellesiles' response:

        “You will notice that Mr. Cramer quotes from the congressional record, whereas I quote from the actual law. There is a difference, as you probably know, between a bill and a law. ... He has not quoted the final version.”

        I could go on recounting their disagreements, but you get the idea. It would take a time traveler to determine who is more correct.

        Most of us can't do this research for ourselves. We can only read widely and openly, understanding that, unfortunately, no author is completely objective when it comes to guns.

        E-mail ksamples@enquirer.com.
       

       



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