Up in arms for 225 years

Historian Michael A. Bellesiles claims America's gun culture isn't as old or sacred as the NRA claims.

ARMING AMERICA: THE ORIGINS OF A NATIONAL GUN CULTURE By Michael A. Bellesiles Alfred A. Knopf 603 pp., $30

'Arming America" came my way while I was on holiday in the Pacific Northwest. Two incidents during that break brought America's gun culture into sharp focus. First, a 13-year-old boy in Kent, Wash., drew a gun on his classmates, herded them into the auditorium, fired a shot in the air, and then, fortunately, panicked and ran. Some soul-searching about children and weapons followed, but what struck me was how quickly the story faded.

Then, I caught glimpses of Charlton Heston addressing the NRA conference, telling the faithful that the Second Amendment is more sacred than the First, since guns protect basic freedoms. He ended by brandishing a flintlock above his head - a gesture of defiance against those who wish to disarm America. As a resident of Great Britain, where guns were banned some years ago, I find the American obsession with weapons both puzzling and frightening.

According to Michael A. Bellesiles, the pro-gun argument is built on myth. America was not settled by pioneers toting guns. There were, in fact, very few firearms in circulation during the Colonial period and indeed right up to the Civil War. Government efforts to encourage gun possession - in order to strengthen local militias - were received with little enthusiasm by the early settlers. They found guns expensive and unreliable, preferring instead to engage their enemies with sword, club, or knife.

The Founding Fathers did not intend that the Second Amendment should protect universal gun ownership. It had instead a much more limited intent, that being to ensure the existence of a readily mobilized militia. Bellesiles is not the first to propose this argument, of course, but he is one of the most convincing to have done so. Equally persuasive is his argument that the gun culture we know today has relatively recent provenance, being largely a creation of the Civil War. When Americans left the battlefields in 1865, they took their guns with them. At the same time, the infant gun industry, swelled by wartime orders, sought desperately to encourage wider ownership so as to avoid a postwar slump.

"Arming America" is first and foremost a serious historical monograph, though the author can't resist the occasional broadside at the pro-gun lobby. In fact, one notes a confusion of purpose: Bellesiles attacks the mythmakers with hard evidence, but then claims that it is not his purpose to engage in topical political debate. This confusion is most evident in the introduction, when he can't resist pointing out the idiocies of the NRA argument, such as Heston's claim that journalists, not guns, are responsible for the epidemic of gun violence. As a result, the first few pages of the book suggest a much less sober and objective work than in fact follows.

When Bellesiles settles back into pure history, he's at his best. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is not the idea that the gun culture is built on myth but that respectable historians have, over the years, colluded in the creation of that myth. "Arming America" is at times self-indulgent - we don't really need quite so many examples to prove each point - but it is well-researched, solidly reasoned, and cogently written history.

But that is also its weakness. The author has exposed the fallacies of the NRA argument, but who is really going to notice a serious historical monograph?

The book will be positively reviewed, and might even get talked about on PBS and National Public Radio. But the NRA will continue peddling its myths, oblivious of Bellesiles and his annoying truths. One pre-publication reviewer called Bellesiles the NRA's worst enemy, but that seems naive. Historians don't usually shape popular culture. Charlton Heston chose to punctuate his speech with a flintlock because he was aware of that weapon's potent symbolic imagery. The M-16 or Saturday Night Special might have been more accurate representations of America's gun culture, but the flintlock evokes an imagined past that is holy. Historians seek hard evidence, but the rest of the world feeds on glorious myth.

*Gerard J. DeGroot is chairman of the Modern History Department at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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