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Central to America's gun culture is the belief that gun ownership is an indiv-idual's right going back to colonial days. Whatever you think about Bellesiles' use of probate records, he does present sufficient evidence that gun ownership was not considered an individual's right in colonial days, so much as a duty of some persons arming to protect themselves against others.
Governments often encouraged and legislated gun ownership for the purpose of protecting the community against uprisings by Native Americans, slaves, and indentured servants. There were many laws restricting gun use. Laws were often passed that prevented gun ownership by all except male, white, free, property-owning, Protestant citizens. We have to understand that there were no police as we know them, and the militia were organized and often armed by the government to protect the haves against the have-nots.
Another position taken by Bellesiles that seems very strong is the contribution of the gun makers after the Civil War to the idea of gun ownership as an American right. The fact that privately-owned guns proliferated from a few thousand at the beginning of the 19th century to several million at the end of it points to considerable marketing expertise on the part of gun makers. We should give credit where credit is due. Making guns seem a part of the authentic American experience was indeed a successful part of that strategy.
William H. DuBay
Costa Mesa, CA
Joyce Malcolm replies: Mr. DuBay raises important issues and I am happy to reply. The chief point of Arming America, as he writes, is the claim that there was no individual right to have firearms going back to colonial days. But Bellesiles' evidence for this contention is incorrect.
He dismisses the right of Englishmen, affirmed in their Bill of Rights, to have private arms. Originally a right for Protestants, 90 percent of the population, this was extended to all Englishmen during the 18th century. Since every American colony's charter guaranteed settlers the same rights as those born and abiding in England, the American colonists had an individual right to be armed a century before the Revolution.
Bellesiles devotes only a page and a half of his 450-page book to the passage and meaning of the Second Amendment. This cursory coverage ignores the wealth of testimony by contemporaries, including the Founding Fathers, that the am-endment was meant to protect an individual right. Instead he points out that guns continued to be restricted because Indians and slaves had no right to be armed. Neither group had the rights of citizens and all rights had some restrictions. They were nonetheless rights.
As for the increase in guns after the Civil War, the numbers did not proliferate from a few thousand at the beginning of the 19th century because there already were hundreds of thousands of guns in private hands. Where Bellesiles finds only 14.7 percent of white men had firearms during the colonial era, four independent studies of probate inventories, Bellesiles' main source of evidence, found 54 percent to 78 percent of adult white men owned at least one firearm. If numbers of guns make a gun culture, there was already a gun culture in America in the 18th century. No one had to make guns seem a part of the authentic American experience. They already were.