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Guns, Rights and People

ARMING AMERICA, The Origins of a National Gun Culture By Michael A. Bellesiles; Alfred A. Knopf: 608 pp., $30

September 17, 2000|FRED ANDERSON | Fred Anderson is the author of "Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766." He teaches history at the University of Colorado, Boulder

Historians often seem to be custodians of knowledge mostly irrelevant to today's concerns; indeed, they reinforce this view by condemning those accounts of the past written to support positions on modern issues. Even so, excellent scholars have written books that make (or unmistakably imply) a polemical point without sacrificing intellectual rigor. Such works can, under the right circumstances, powerfully influence policy and public opinion. C. Vann Woodward's brief 1955 history of segregation, "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," offers the classic example of how good history can have a powerful modern effect; Michael Bellesiles' "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," a study of how Americans fell in love with firearms, may prove to be another.

Like Woodward, who demonstrated that segregation was hardly more than a half-century old and therefore less a reflection of timeless Southern mores than a bad habit capable of being broken, Bellesiles argues that colonial Americans had no innate love of firearms. Indeed, he shows, post-Revolutionary Americans only gradually became attached to them, despite the best efforts of the federal government to create an armed citizenry. Today's "gun culture"--with its insistence that owning guns is an individual right on a par with free speech and trial by jury, its acceptance of gun violence and its sanctioning of firearms use by private citizens--reflects developments that took place only in the 1860s and 1870s, the end-point of his account. Insofar as this gun culture can be seen as a set of learned behaviors, values and norms, Bellesiles suggests, it must be susceptible to change; inasmuch as a powerful mythology sustains it, he believes, change must begin with an accurate understanding of historical reality.

For indeed, he writes, most Americans uncritically accept "the notion that . . . [pervasive firearms] violence is immutable, the product of a deeply embedded historical experience rooted in the frontier heritage." We need not look far to see the implications of that assumption worked out. From Daniel Chester French's statue of the Minuteman to National Rifle Assn. publicity campaigns and Mel Gibson in "The Patriot," the image of the citizen-soldier taking up his musket to defend his home and community is so deeply ingrained as to seem axiomatic. Even most who advocate repealing the 2nd Amendment assume that it originated at a time when a musket hung over every mantel. They believe that the right to bear arms has become a dangerous anachronism only because Kalashnikov rifles and TEC-9s are so much more destructive than muzzleloaders.

But Bellesiles denies the accuracy of those deep-rooted, assumptions, marshaling evidence to demonstrate that early Americans in fact owned comparatively few guns and seldom used them effectively. Expensive, hard to maintain and often unsafe, the unrifled muskets of the 17th and 18th centuries made poor hunting arms; most were military weapons that colonial governments distributed to militiamen. Virtually all were imports. American "gunsmiths" seldom made weapons but tended to be general-purpose metalworkers who mainly repaired guns when they broke--something they did so frequently that 18th century professional armies expected to replace every musket within a decade of its manufacture.

Even that modest life expectancy was predicated on peacetime use by soldiers who fired their guns under close supervision, cleaned them regularly and had armorers on hand to make repairs. No such conditions existed in colonial America, where militia officers universally complained that militiamen who actually brought muskets to their annual drill sessions often carried weapons that were old, rusted and unserviceable. There were never enough weapons to go around; whenever wars threatened, colony governments begged the crown for arms. "By 1754 [at the outbreak of the French and Indian War]," Bellesiles notes, "there were only enough guns for a small percentage of the American population--at most one-sixth of those eligible for militia duty."

Because "those eligible for militia duty" in most colonies were free white Protestant men between 16 and 50 years of age (a group that made up only about one-fifth of all whites), this level of gun ownership suggests that, on the eve of the Revolution, no more than about 4% of colonists were armed. Formal arms censuses conducted by the federal government in the early 19th century show that this modest level of gun possession was slow to rise, if indeed it rose at all. In 1803, the United States had enough weapons to arm 4.9% of its white citizens; in 1810, 4.3%; in 1820, 4.7%. (The 1830 census showed that the level had fallen to 3%.) By contrast, the FBI estimates that there are enough small arms in the United States today to equip every man, woman and child with a gun with enough left over to give 2.5% of Americans a second weapon.

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