In March 2000, 47 law professors and
historians sent a stiff letter to Charlton Heston, president of the
National Rifle Association. They told him "the Second Amendment
permits broad and intensive regulation of firearms" and urged him to
move beyond such trifles as constitutional guarantees to "the real
issue"--just how much regulation is needed to "prevent the
killings and violence that plague our country today."
This letter takes on new meaning now, as we consider the past 18 months of controversy over Michael Bellesiles's "Arming America." That award-winning book, published by Knopf in 2000, purported to show that guns were a rarity in early America, which would have had broad implications for the Second Amendment's historical context.
Within months of the book's appearance, however, a battle raged over Mr. Bellesiles's scholarship. It ended last week when a distinguished panel of scholars declared the work "unprofessional and misleading," and Mr. Bellesiles resigned from Emory University.
From the start, the Bellesiles battle was portrayed as the usual one--between right-wing gun owners and left-wing gun regulators. But to look at "Arming America" that way is to miss the real divide.
Yes, the spokesmen for the opposing interest groups threw themselves into the fray. But soon the real split became one within academia. It pitted those who cared about scholarly integrity against those who were happy to ignore, or promote, Mr. Bellesiles's shoddy, perhaps fraudulent, work if it helped their political agenda.
Which gets us back to the letter sent to the NRA before "Arming America" was published. Mr. Bellesiles (himself a signatory) always claimed that his book wasn't political. But the letter suggests otherwise. Clearly his fellow scholars on the left saw "Arming America" as the best thing to happen to their cause in years.
At least three signers would write glowing reviews of "Arming America." Five others would pen laudatory blurbs for its jacket, with one of them, Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania, gleefully describing Mr. Bellesiles as the "NRA's worst nightmare." Yet another would sit on the committee that gave Mr. Bellesiles the prestigious Bancroft Prize.
Even as this troop was singing his praises, another group of scholars--Jim Lindgren of Northwestern, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado, Randolph Roth of Ohio State, Robert Churchill of the University of Hartford, and many more--were scratching their heads. None had a particular stake in the gun-control debate, but all were experts in the historical detail on which Mr. Bellesiles based his research--probate records, militia counts, homicide rates. They noted many things amiss in "Arming America"--facts, not interpretations.
These scholars produced a mountain of evidence showing the book to be irredeemably flawed. Their reward for taking scholarship seriously was to be largely ignored, or even chastised, by many of those Second Amendment scholars who so desperately wanted Mr. Bellesiles's work to be right.
Mr. Zuckerman was quoted in The Nation just this month saying that "the critics are casting about for a way to discredit" Mr. Bellesiles. Mary Beth Norton of Cornell (a letter signer) claimed in the same piece that Mr. Bellesiles's work was "just as plausible" as that of his critics. When I called to ask what she thought of the panel's findings, she said she had "no time to have this conversation."
When the William and Mary Quarterly asked four scholars to evaluate "Arming America," three wrote damning reviews. The fourth, Stanford's Jack Rakove (who also signed the letter to the NRA), chose to look not at the book's accuracy but at what the thesis meant for the Second Amendment. In a phone interview, he still maintains that the book, while flawed, "raises interesting questions." Other scholars disappeared. Garry Wills, a letter signer who wrote a glowing review of "Arming America" for the New York Times Book Review, has yet to publicly set the record straight. Ditto Carl T. Bogus (another signer) who wrote two laudatory reviews.
There are, of course, some exceptions. One of the signers of the letter, Stanley Katz of Princeton, ultimately sat on the panel that rendered its judgment last week. Another, Saul Cornell at Ohio State, told me that "the committee did a thorough job. Michael has had a chance to respond, and their criticism is very persuasive."
I know that others voiced their support for getting to the bottom of the affair--who put professional integrity above personal cause. Let's hope we will hear from them soon, now that the facts are in. Maybe they can all sign another letter, this time condemning the "NRA's nightmare" not the NRA.
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