Arming America

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Arming America By Michael Bellesiles
(Knopf, 603 pages, $30)

The new scholarship, according to David Thelen, the Journal's editor, was viewed as "too obscure to appreciate and too remote from everyday life." He believed that the profession had gotten to the point where dazzling people with the unfamiliar and erudite had become more important than telling a good story or imparting wisdom. Increasingly, people complained about the bad writing that had also become a trademark of literary theory as well as cultural studies. The failure to write clearly may have caused publishers and the reading public to forsake academic history. According to Oshinsky, historians are in an odd position. "Their subject is growing in popularity, yet their once considerable influence is on the wane. Fewer people are seeking their wisdom."

This book is an exception to the criticisms. It also demythologizes an icon of American society, and indirectly critiques the "old school" of American historiography. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael Bellesiles, an Emory University professor, is destined to be an influential book that may well change public policy in regard to violence.

"An astoundingly high level of personal violence," writes Bellesiles, "separates the United States from every other industrial nation. To find comparable levels of interpersonal violence, one must examine nations in the midst of civil wars or social chaos. In the United States of America in the 1990s, two million violent crimes and twenty-four thousand murders occurred on average every year. The weapon of choice in 70 percent of these murders was a gun, and thousands more are killed by firearms every year in accidents and suicides. In a typical week, more Americans are killed with guns than in all of Western Europe in a year."

The FBI estimates that there are 250 million firearms in private hands (within a population of more than 275 million) and five million new guns are purchased every year. Clearly, America has a love affair with firearms. We are told that a high level of violence and a love of guns stem from the nation's colonial past. Every pioneer had his Brown Bess and was a crack shot due to the exigencies of colonial life (i.e., stealing the land from the native inhabitants). In order to defend the land from British Regulars, the original jackbooted thugs, the militia (aka the Minutemen) assembled and fired their weapons at the "whites of their eyes." All were marksmen used to hunting for game and defending the land from troublesome Indians.

Bellesiles has argued otherwise. "[G]un ownership was exceptional in seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier, and?guns became a common commodity only with the industrialization of the mid-nineteenth century, with ownership concentrated in urban areas." Bellesiles has marshaled an impressive array of evidence and facts that argue against the mythology that guns were pervasive in early American life. He also argues a radical thesis: Native Americans were the original gun culture. The vaunted militia were next to useless in combating Indians. It was European military organization, immigration and disease that wrested the New World from its original people?not solely the gun.

The military leaders of the Revolutionary War were of the same opinion in regard to the efficacy of the militia, including George Washington. America's gun culture is an "invented tradition," not based on nation's actual history. "It was not present at the nation's creation, whenever we fix that point. Rather, it developed in a single generation, among those who experienced the onset of the Civil War and that disaster itself."

Interestingly, historians "have joined actively in the mythmaking." Bellesiles cites the credulousness of historians who proclaim "that Americans all had guns because they had to have them," yet were unable to substantiate these claims. "For some reason these assertions seem beyond the usual need of historians for supportive evidence."

Bellesiles begins his historical search for guns by examining county probate records (inventories of property after a death). After looking at more than 1000 probate records from the frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania between the years 1765 and 1790, he found only 14 percent of the inventories included firearms, and 53 percent of those found were listed as either broken or defective. Bellesiles allows for the possibility that firearms could have been passed on to heirs before the original owner's death, but wills generally mention previous requests of even minor items. The book does not argue that guns didn't exist in early America. The author is concerned with "the normative, with what most people did, owned, and thought in reference to guns, most of the time."

As witnessed by the recent presidential election, the nation is forever debating violence. The introduction of guns in Europe also proved to be a hotly debated subject. However, the concern wasn't over violence. Instead, guns were seen as ineffective weapons and as a diminution of the manly arts of war. One English critic, Sir John Smythe, thought that the weapons were of little use on the fields of battle and were "limited by the need for constant practice and by an effective range of only six to ten yards." Men like Smythe favored the standard of the English militia, the long bow. However, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, favored the introduction of firearms, and in 1595 the Privy Council finally voted to replace archers in the English military forces.

This change required a new sociological factor in English society: the expertise to master the firearms meant a longer training period, and thus the English militia, the army of the commoner, became superfluous. The use of firearms would be in the sole province of the state. "As England's government came to encourage the use of firearms among its troops, it not only outlawed the use of guns by commoners, but also discouraged their use of bows and arrows."

The English government always sought to control access to weapons, as did its colonial governments in America. There was a profound tension in the colonial governments' attitude toward arms and the colonial man. The colonial governments sought to arm and train the militia in response to the unreasonableness of the native population, who wanted to hold on to their land. However, the governments were always concerned that those whom they armed might turn around and foment an insurrection against the government.

The image of today's bumbling militia member stumbling around in the suburbs or hinterlands has its origins in the colonial militia. But the contemporary militia man?not the National Guard?is better armed, if not better trained. For guns, after all, were an expensive item for the average man in colonial America. As a matter of fact, most men sought to escape militia duties. "Few free men welcomed this duty, and fewer still could afford firearms, so it became necessary for governments to supply them, with laws passed to effect that purpose."

In the South, the main purpose of the militia was not merely protecting the colonies from Indians but the suppression of the black population?slaves. And, as noted by Bellesiles, "Most musters [of the militia] demonstrated a predilection toward merriment." The militia also introduced an original American tradition: "the avoidance of service by a great number of eligible young men."

Arming America's most radical thesis is the author's contention that Native Americans became the first gun culture in America. Indians were introduced to guns by the Europeans, who competed for their allegiance against each other. By the mid-18th century the Eastern Woodland Indians possessed more firearms per capita than any other society in the world. This first American gun culture emerged from a conjunction of the Indian desire for firearms with an acceleration of the contest for control of North America. That the Indians did not have armies as such meant that ownership of firearms was widespread, in that nearly all males were warriors. So, unlike European societies, arms ownership was not restricted to the state and an elite.

The second American gun culture began in the early to mid-years of the 19th century, Bellesiles argues, with the introduction of interchangeable parts due to industrialization. Sam Colt opened a new gun factory in his hometown of Hartford in 1848. While others have argued that the development of the Colt revolver was a "natural outgrowth of westward expansion," Bellesiles reminds readers of the facts. "Colt invented his revolver at sea and developed it in New Jersey and Connecticut, making the connection to the frontier tenuous at best." Colt pumped up the hype of his gun by associating it with the image of the frontier, even though his "sales were concentrated in the East."

American society was changing, with the 1840s and 1850s marking a shift toward accelerating passions and violence. "Differing paths for America, between a basically Victorian and European conception of society and a perceived authenticity of violent Americanism, played themselves out politically and sectionally." Those with pro-slavery sentiments were more likely to use violence against those who held abolitionist views than vice versa. Guns were used in just 18.1 percent in a study of 735 prominent murders prior to 1846. Between 1846 and 1860, the figure nearly doubled, to 34.9 percent, and over the next 30 years it climbed to 59 percent.

The Civil War opened the door to guns becoming an American way of life. The Union itself produced nearly three million firearms, and its soldiers were allowed to take them home after the war. The war unleashed such a sea-change of violence (remember, more than 600,000 soldiers, blue and gray, lost their lives) that New York City police commissioners remarked that it was "a school of violence and crime."

Arming America serves two important functions. First, it exposes the myth of the nation's gun heritage as an "invented tradition," unwittingly aided and abetted by generations of American historians. (Bellesiles makes an exception for military historians, who knew the facts but didn't connect the dots.) Second, it underscores how the nation's social amnesia allows gun zealots to use the mythology to undermine reasonable government control over firearms. Bellesiles argues that the nation's history with guns does not support gun advocates' position on the Second Amendment. However, given the nation's predilection for myths, Americans probably won't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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