Confiscating Guns from Americas Past
JANUARY 01, 2001 by CLAYTON CRAMER
Clayton Cramer is the author of Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999).
By now you have probably heard about the new book by Michael A. Bellesiles, professor of history at Emory University. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture1 is receiving all sorts of positive attention from the usual figures in the academic community and the media. For these reasons, it is important to understand what Bellesiles claims, and why he isn’t just wrong—he is intentionally deceptive.
Before examining Bellesiles’s deceptions, we must understand why Arming America is receiving such rave reviews from the left end of the political spectrum. For several decades now, supporters of restrictive gun control have argued either that the Second Amendment was never intended to protect an individual right, or that the right is obsolete—a leftover from another time, when guns were less dangerous than today, our cities smaller, and the social problems less severe.
The first claim—that the Second Amendment was never intended to protect an individual right—has collapsed under the onslaught of recent scholarship on the subject. Dozens of law review articles on the possession of firearms have been published in the last 20 years, and they overwhelmingly take the position that the Second Amendment protects an individual right.2 In addition, several scholarly books about the English origins of the Second Amendment, its adoption, and adjudication here in America have been published since 1984.3
The second claim—that the Second Amendment is now obsolete—is more complex. As social scientists have weighed in on the effects of gun ownership, many of the traditional assumptions about gun control have been found to be incorrect. For example, two criminologists with a clear preference for restrictive gun control recently studied the effects of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and concluded that there was no statistically significant change in homicide or suicide rates caused by the law.4
So what is left for the supporters of restrictive gun control seeking an intellectual justification for their position? They are counting on a complete rewrite of American history. Bellesiles’s Arming America is a startling book that demolishes many long‑held beliefs about early America concerning violence, guns, and the effectiveness of the militia. Bellesiles argues that the militia was, throughout American history, an ineffective force; that guns were very scarce in America before about 1840; and that few Americans hunted.
The first of Bellesiles’s claims—that the militia was quite ineffective—is really the least controversial (at least to historians). Many Americans have grown up with a vision of Minutemen running out the door, Kentucky long rifle in hand, to take on them “Redcoats.” However, historians have recognized for at least 40 years that for every success of the “citizen soldier” in defending home and nation, there were far more examples of militias turning tail in battle or simply leaving for home because harvest time had come.
Bellesiles, however, can’t content himself with an evenhanded portrayal of the militia’s failures. He blackens their reputation, apparently as part of his campaign to demonstrate that armed civilians simply can’t perform any military function. His reason is to destroy the rationale for the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment wasn’t about hunting. It wasn’t about individual self-defense—though this was widely assumed to be a right of Englishmen, and therefore of free, usually white Americans. It wasn’t even, primarily, about militias turning out to defend the United States from foreign invasion, though even Bellesiles admits that many of the framers hoped to avoid the expense of a large standing army by maintaining a militia. The Second Amendment was about keeping the government afraid of the masses.
Antifederalists such as Patrick Henry sought both a militia and an armed population out of fear that a standing army would become the weapon of oppression of the new central government. “[T]he President, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master, so far that it will puzzle any American ever to get his neck from under the galling yoke.”5 If, as Bellesiles overstates, armed civilians were never a realistic counterforce to a professional military, then the core reason for the Second Amendment evaporates.
Bellesiles is correct that militias were never as well trained as standing armies, and seldom very effective in fighting against regular troops—hence, James Madison’s assumption in Federalist 46 that a militia 25 times as large as the standing army would be more than sufficient to defeat them in battle.6 Similarly, there was really no realistic alternative to at least a small standing army, especially on the sparsely populated frontiers. But the ineffectiveness of the militia is really a sideshow in Bellesiles’s book. The truly novel part is Bellesiles’s claims that guns were scarce in America until nearly the Civil War.
Were Guns Scarce?
Why were guns scarce? Because not only were they expensive, but also “the majority of American men did not care about guns. They were indifferent to owning guns, and they had no apparent interest in learning how to use them.”7 Bellesiles claims that marksmanship was extraordinarily poor and large numbers of adult men had no idea how to load a gun or how to fire one.
To hear Bellesiles tell it, this lack of both interest and knowledge was because of the fundamentally peaceful nature of early America and that hunting was rare here until the mid-1830s, when a small number of wealthy Americans chose to ape their upper-class British counterparts.8 Indeed, he would have us believe that by the 1830s, a pacifist movement, fiercely hostile not only to gun ownership, but also to a military and hunting of any form, was becoming a major influence on American society.9
As I researched my book Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic, I read through dozens of eyewitness accounts of the early republic. I found that guns and hunting were common in nearly all regions of the United States, and so I concluded that Belles-iles wishfully misread his sources. This, unfortunately, is a problem common to many historians, especially those with a strong ideology.
But Bellesiles wasn’t just wrong. When I started checking his sources for the more amazing claims, I found that they didn’t check out. He quoted sources out of context, then inaccurately reported what the rest of the sentence said. I looked up the sources he listed in his notes and found that while one page confirmed his claim, many other pages he listed contradicted it. In many cases, none of his sources matched his claim.
For example, Bellesiles claims that there were few firearms in Massachusetts at the start of the American Revolution, and most of them were publicly owned. He writes, “Massachusetts conducted a very thorough census of arms, finding that there were 21,549 guns in the province of some 250,000 people.” Bellesiles claims that this included all privately owned firearms.10
His source is an inventory of “Warlike Stores in Massachusetts, 1774.” But when I examined the inventory, I found no indication of the categories of firearms that were counted. It included stockpiles owned by towns and at least those guns with which the militia showed up at musters, both publicly and privately owned.11 But does it include all privately owned arms, as Bellesiles claims?
The only description of this arms census that I can find is an order of February 13, 1775, telling a committee to inquire “into the state of the militia, their numbers and equipments, and recommending to the selectmen of the several towns and districts in this province, to make return of their town and district stocks of ammunition and warlike stores to this Congress.”12 This seems to say that only military weapons possessed by militia members and publicly owned weapons were counted. There is no indication that all privately owned arms were counted.
The evidence from the rest of Bellesiles’s source for this claim suggests that firearms were plentiful and that the inventory of “Warlike Stores” recorded only a part of all firearms in the province. A committee appointed to examine the problem of soldiers lacking firearms reported on May 9, 1775 (just weeks after Redcoats fired on Minutemen at Lexington), “Whereas, a few of the inhabitants of this colony, who are enlisted into its service, are destitute of fire arms, bayonets, and other accoutrements. . . .”13 Not “most of the inhabitants of this colony, who are enlisted into its service” are without firearms; not “many,” not “some,” but “a few”—and it isn’t clear whether the problem is a shortage of firearms, bayonets, or “accoutrements” (for example, cartridge pouches).
Certainly, it is possible that a person who used a musket primarily for hunting would lack a bayonet. The following paragraph directs the selectmen of each town to purchase or borrow “arms and accoutrements” for the unarmed militiamen, which sounds like the Provincial Congress thought that there were quite a number of privately owned weapons out there available for purchase. Perhaps the revolutionary government of Massachusetts didn’t know how well its own population was armed—at least, not as well as Michael Bellesiles knows.
There are later discussions of soldiers “who are destitute of arms,” but there is no indication that this was a problem of great concern.14 If there were a serious shortage of firearms or ammunition for the militia, as Bellesiles claims, it seems strange that the Provincial Congress on June 17, 1775 (almost two months after the Revolution started), recommended to nonmilitia members “living on the sea coasts, or within twenty miles of them, that they carry their arms and ammunition with them to meeting on the [S]abbath, and other days when they meet for public worship.”15 Somehow, there was a shortage of guns and ammunition for the militiamen, but nonmilitia members still had enough arms and ammunition that they were encouraged to bring them to public meetings.
The Price of Guns
Were guns rare in colonial Massachusetts, as Bellesiles claims? If so, you would expect the value of guns to be high, especially once the Revolutionary War started, and there was no way to import more guns from Europe. (Bellesiles claims that there were almost no guns made in the colonies.16) The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts bought weapons from many private owners in the first few months of the war, sometimes purchasing as many as 100 weapons in a single transaction. The Journals that Bellesiles used show that the Provincial Congress purchased at least 483 guns, “fire‑arms,” and “small arms” from private parties and appraised their value.17
The average value of these weapons was just under £2. Perhaps some of those weapons contained in transactions labeled “small arms” were actually pikes or swords; let’s give Bellesiles the benefit of the doubt and only look at transactions labeled “fire-arms” and “guns,” and assume that none of the “small arms” are guns. Those transactions (a total of 89 weapons) average £2 5 s. 1 d.—not a trivial amount of money for the time, but about the same as a sergeant’s monthly wages in the Massachusetts army.18 If guns were scarce, it doesn’t show up in their valuation.
If the revolutionary government of Massachusetts were desperately short of arms, one would expect them to have used eminent domain to obtain privately owned firearms. Instead, the private owners were told, “[I]t is strongly recommended to such inhabitants . . . , that they supply the colony with same.19 A request of June 15, 1775, also seems quite voluntary: “Resolved, that any person or persons, who may have such to sell, shall receive so much for them, as the selectmen of the town or district in which or they may dwell, shall appraise such arms at.”20 Desperate times often bring on desperate measures, and yet this supposed scarcity of guns seems to have resulted in polite requests, not demands.
There are dozens of examples in Arming America where Bellesiles mischaracterizes what his sources say. Perhaps the most blatant is his claim that “an examination of 80 travel accounts written in America from 1750 to 1860 indicate that the travelers did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence.”21 I read more than two dozen travel accounts of the period for my last book, and four of those were among Bellesiles’s 80. I know that for at least those four sources, Bellesiles is not telling the truth. At least those four accounts show that the travelers were surrounded by guns. Two examples of Bellesiles’s dishonesty will suffice.
Not Surrounded by Guns?
Bellesiles claims to have read Baynard Rush Hall’s memoir of 1816 Indiana life and found that Hall was not aware he was “surrounded by guns.” Somehow Bellesiles missed Hall’s detailed description of how hunting was a common part of life for most settlers, done partly for sport and partly because it supplied fresh meat at little expense.22 Not surrounded by guns? Hall devotes an entire chapter to the joy of target shooting with rifles, opening the chapter with: “Reader, were ever you fired with the love of rifle shooting? If so, the confidence now reposed in your honour will not be abused, when told my love for that noble art is unabated.”23
Hall also describes target shooting matches as common and takes pride in participating in a match that he happened upon where the prize was a half-barrel of whiskey. As the president of the local temperance society, his goal was to win the prize and pour the whiskey out on the ground.24
The rifle was so common an implement, and target shooting so common a sport, that when Hall went out evangelizing in a sparsely settled part of Indiana, one of his fellow preachers switched in mid-sermon to a metaphor involving rifle matches to sway the audience. They were becoming restless with analogies that meant nothing to them—but rifle matches they understood.25 Hall also describes the use of rifles both by settlers pursuing criminals and by criminals trying to avoid arrest.26
Hunting and target shooting were common enough that Hall describes nonlethal accidents.27 Hall also makes occasional references to pistols with no indication that they were either rare or regarded with any particular concern.28 Yet his references to pistols are far exceeded by mentions of rifles and shotguns. Hall’s discussions of hunting, use and misuse of guns, and target shooting take up 41 pages of his book—all of which Bellesiles seems to have either missed or disregarded.
Even when Bellesiles admits that there is a mention of guns in one of the travel accounts, he distorts what it says. For example, “Similarly, Ole Rynning advised his Norwegian readers to bring ‘good rifles with percussion locks,’ as such good guns are far too expensive in America and can be sold there for a good profit. Guns thus had an economic value, but if thought requisite for self-protection, it remained an unstated assumption.”29
But what did Rynning actually say? He wrote to bring “good rifles with percussion locks, partly for personal use, partly for sale. I have already said that in America a good rifle costs from fifteen to twenty dollars.”30 Bellesiles didn’t actually lie and say that the only possible value of a gun for a Norwegian immigrant was to sell it here; instead, he misleads, by giving the impression that the value of bringing a good gun to America was to sell it, not to use it yourself. Rynning is clear that one should bring guns both to sell and for personal use.
I could point to the dozens of other travel accounts that Bellesiles seems to have missed—including common works such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America—that clearly demonstrate that guns and violence were a common part of American life in the early republic. Clearly, Bellesiles’s “research” runs from, at best, careless to egregiously deceptive.
Perhaps Bellesiles is right and dozens of eyewitnesses and official documents of the time are wrong. But when a historian repeatedly mischaracterizes, quotes out of context, or simply ignores sources because they do not fit his claims—well, let’s just say that it’s a bit early to start revising the textbooks to fit the new wisdom from Arming America.
- Michael A. Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).
- See David B. Kopel, Clayton E. Cramer, and Scott G. Hattrup, “A Tale of Three Cities: The Right to Bear Arms in State Supreme Courts,” Temple Law Review 68 (1995), p. 1178 n.2 for a complete list through 1995; see www.2ndlawlib.org for more recent scholarly works.
- Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo‑American Right (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994); Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1984); Stephen P. Halbrook, A Right to Bear Arms: State and Federal Bills of Rights and Constitutional Guarantees (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989); Clayton E. Cramer, For the Defense of Themselves and the State: The Original Intent and Judicial Interpretation of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Press, 1994); Stephen P. Halbrook, Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Press, 1998); Clayton E. Cramer, Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Press, 1999).
- Jens Ludwig and Philip J. Cook, “Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated with Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act,” Journal of the American Medical Association August 2, 2000, pp. 585–91 (jama.ama-assn.org/issues/v284n5/full/joc91749.html).
- Jonathan Elliot, The Debates of the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, (New York: Burt Franklin, 1888), pp. 59–60.
- James Madison, Federalist 46, in Jacob E. Cooke, ed., The Federalist (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), pp. 320–21.
- Bellesiles, p. 295.
- Ibid., pp. 314–15, 320–23.
- Ibid., pp. 300–301.
- Ibid., p. 180.
- Massachusetts Provincial Congress, The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), p. 756.
- Massachusetts Provincial Congress, p. 98.
- Ibid., pp. 209–10.
- Ibid., p. 332.
- Ibid., pp. 348–49.
- Bellesiles, pp. 188–91.
- Massachusetts Provincial Congress, pp. 536–37, 584–93.
- Ibid., p. 413.
- Ibid., p. 210.
- Ibid., pp. 336–37.
- Bellesiles, p. 304.
- Robert Carleton [Baynard Rush Hall], The New Purchase, or Early Years in the Far West, 2nd ed. (New Albany, Ind.: Jonathan R. Nunemacher, 1855), pp. 66, 82, 139–49, 153, 160–63, 375, 448–51.
- Ibid., pp. 100–13.
- Ibid., p. 104.
- Ibid., pp. 228–30.
- Ibid., pp. 189–90.
- Ibid., pp. 262–63.
- Ibid., pp. 449, 452.
- Bellesiles, p. 339.
- Ole Rynning, Ole Rynning’s True Account of America, ed. and trans. Theodore C. Blegen (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971 ), p. 99.