Clayton Cramer is a software engineer by day, a vengeful historian by night. He entered the national gun policy debate in 2000, when he became one of the most prominent critics of Michael Bellesiles’ controversial book Arming America. Bellesiles claimed guns were fairly rare in colonial America, fueling new battles about the intent of the Second Amendment. Cramer was part of a group of skeptical historians, professionals as well as amateurs, who looked up Bellesiles’ sources and found he was guilty of fabrication. Most academic historians initially lionized and defended Bellesiles, but after a drawn-out fight Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize it had awarded him, and Bellesiles was forced to resign from his post at Emory University.
Now Cramer, whose first published article appeared in reason in 1984, has his own book on the period, Armed America (Nelson Current). It tells “the story of how and why guns became as American as apple pie.”
Q: In Armed America, you compare restrictions on gun ownership in modern America with limits during the colonial period. Which were stricter?
A: If you exclude the slave population, more Americans are restricted in gun ownership today than were in the colonial period. South Carolina, for example, had a majority slave population for a while, and after 1720 slaves are quite severely restricted in South Carolina. But the restrictions are only written into the law. In practice, it was very common even for slaves to own guns, not to mention freemen.
At the beginning of the American Revolution, a number of counties in Virginia got very concerned that all this talk about liberty and the natural rights of man might cause some dangerous ideas over in the slave quarters. So they actually went on a search, and they were astonished at the number of guns they found. Over 100 guns in one county were taken out of the slave quarters. No matter how strict the gun control laws on slaves were in the colonial and early republic period, it’s clear that a fair number of them still owned guns. Sometimes without the knowledge of their masters, but often the master’s attitude was, “Well, I trust this guy. He’s going to go hunting, he’s going to defend the plantation from vermin. What’s the big deal?”
However, the biggest restrictions today are on felons, who lose the right to own a gun for the rest of their lives. A lot of the felonies were dealt with back then by hanging. And of course dead people generally don’t have to be disarmed.
Q: Is the rise of amateur historians always a good thing?
A: I understand the academic community’s tendency to circle the wagons when they began to read these criticisms of Bellesiles. There are an awful lot of people out there who think that because they read a lot of history—or worse, because they watch the History Channel regularly—they know a lot about history, that they understand the process of how history is written. On certain politically sensitive topics—for example, the Civil War—there’s a tendency of amateurs to get rather insistent that “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Mine was an unusual case because in a sense I’m a amateur, but my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree are both in history and I had a few books published before this little matter with Michael Bellesiles and his falsities came up.
Q: The debate over Arming America was very intense. What was the most remarkable hate mail you received?
A: By far the most disturbing were the things that Michael Bellesiles himself wrote. He would never directly refer to me by name, but he wrote a piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he compared people who disagreed with him to Holocaust deniers. And at one point he refused to debate me at Columbia University on this subject. He said, “Deborah Lipstadt [author of Denying the Holocaust] would no more debate a Holocaust denier than I would debate this guy.” A lot of other historians, once I actually began to put up copies of the primary sources that Bellesiles had falsified, began to back down from their enthusiastic defense of him. He has never backed down.