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May and June 2001. In response to Bellesiles' claims that he has received death threats and that a fire was set against his office door, the governing councils of the American Historical Association, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and other organizations post resolutions condemning such harassment and defending civil exchange.
September 2001. One of the 40 counties from which Bellesiles said he drew data on gun ownership was San Francisco, where he claimed to have examined 1850s probates at the Superior Court. In response to inquiries from National Review's Melissa Seckora, the court's archivist reports that all 19th-century documents were destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When questioned about this, Bellesiles says he must have seen these documents somewhere else, suggesting several other California libraries. None of them has the records either.
To support his contentions about the poor quality of guns, Bellesiles began posting on his Web site Vermont probate records listing guns described as old and broken. A scholar and a Boston Globe reporter examine the originals and find no such descriptions. Told of this, Bellesiles claims his Web site must have been hacked by someone who altered the documents. Emory University investigates but finds no evidence of hacking.
November 2001. In an unprecedented move, Emory demands that Bellesiles offer a "reasoned, measured, de-tailed, point-by-point response" to his critics. His reply, published by the Organization of American Historians in its online newsletter, instead complains of his ill treatment while addressing little of substance. Oddly, the reply refers to only 12 probates from San Francisco, in contrast to the "few hundred" he claimed to have examined when Seckora interviewed him.
January 2002. Bellesiles claims to have found the missing San Francisco probates at the Contra Costa County Historical Archive. He sends copies of these documents to reporters. The Contra Costa archivists point out that not one of these documents is from a San Francisco estate. Furthermore, they have no record that Bellesiles ever visited the collection prior to 2002.
The January 2002 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly carries a symposium in which three of the four scholars asked to examine Arming America, Gloria Main, Ira Gruber, and Randolph Roth, cite gross error and misuse of sources. Main, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, finds Bellesiles' claim that probate inventories were complete "incredible." She says the amazing difference between Bellesiles' low figure for gun ownership in Maryland, 7 percent, and hers, 76 percent, "boggles the mind." Gruber, a professor of history at Rice University, concludes Bellesiles worked "to minimize the importance of guns, militia, and war in early America" using "a consistently biased reading of sources" and "careless uses of evidence and context." Roth, a professor of history at Ohio State University, finds Bellesiles' homicide information is "misleading or wrong" in every instance.
February 2002. Emory launches an internal review, later followed by appointment of an external panel to examine Bellesiles' work. By this point nearly all of Bellesiles' early boosters have gone silent.
The Victim Pose
Contrary to Bellesiles' pretense that he accidentally stepped into a political minefield, the introduction to Arming America is intentionally polemical. The book opens with a description of a toddler featured on the cover of Time magazine "dressed in camouflage and clutching a high-powered rifle." Despite a religious upbringing, the boy at age 11 joined a 13-year-old friend in shooting children at his Arkansas school. Bellesiles comments, "The temptation of a gun can trump a claim of faith in God and all dreams of childhood innocence."
he gun control movement's need for supportive scholarship is what gave Arming America so much visibility. The New York Times heralded Bellesiles' results five months before publication, although the reporter who lauded its findings complained to me that he had not even been able to see the galleys. Many early reviewers seemed so eager to extol the book that they suspended their critical faculties -- either that, or they were taken in by the trappings of scholarship or the wild approval of others they trusted. Politics propelled the book to dizzying heights.
But when critics began to point out the book's obvious flaws, Bellesiles, his publisher, and his supporters dismissed the criticisms as politically motivated. Columbia University's Bancroft Committee apparently did not bother to read the critical reviews before awarding Arming America the nation's most prestigious prize in American history. (In December, the trustees of Columbia University finally voted to rescind the honor, the first time they have had to take such action in the more than 50 years of the award's history. They have also asked that the $4,000 in prize money be returned.) We early critics were confronted with Bellesiles' complaints about hate mail and death threats, tales that prompted professional historical organizations to leap to his defense. To challenge Bellesiles' work was to risk being lumped together with "gun nuts" and extremists.
Bellesiles wrapped himself in the mantle of victimhood. But occasionally it slipped, and a different persona peered out. In an essay in the Chicago-Kent Law Review the year Arming America appeared, he portrayed scholars who found evidence of an individual right to be armed as "post-modernists" for whom "facts do not matter," partisans uninterested in "the hard and time-consuming task of archival research." He warned that "the next stop is Holocaust denial." When Clayton Cramer, an amateur historian, questioned some of Bellesiles' evidence in a polite letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bellesiles lashed out:
"Clayton Cramer hates my research and has for some time....It is not my intention to give an introductory history lesson, but as a nonhistorian, Mr. Cramer may not appreciate that historians do not just chronicle the past."
In June 2002, when the soundness of his scholarship had become so suspect that the National Endowment for the Humanities stripped its name from his Newberry Library fellowship, Bellesiles told a British reporter that the move "reawakened the ghosts of McCarthyism." He described it as a "political decision that should send chills through academics everywhere and is clearly intended as a warning to any scholar who dares to work on a controversial topic."
Closure of a sort came on October 25, 2002, with the report of three distinguished historians -- Stanley Katz of Princeton University, Hanna Gray of the University of Chicago, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard -- charged by Emory University to investigate Bellesiles' use of probate records and militia counts. Their mission was surprisingly narrow, given all the doubts that had been raised about the veracity of Bellesiles' work. But they agreed that "the best that can be said of his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work. Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed."