T Nation

Debunking Anti-Gun History

This is an interesting story, on multiple levels:


James Lindgren & The Debunking of “Arming America”

James Lindgren ( http://www.law.nwu.edu/faculty/fulltime/Lindgren/Lindgren.html ) spoke to the Federalist Society at the University of Wisconsin today about his extensive work debunking the claims contained in Michael Bellesiles?s Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Jim’s law review article on the subject is here ( http://www.law.nwu.edu/faculty/fulltime/Lindgren/lindwmmary.PDF ), and there is no shortage of stories in the popular press.

The debate is about levels of gun ownership in early America. I don’t spend much time on guns, and I was only vaguely aware of the controversy. But even if this isn’t your bailiwick, I think you would find Jim’s story simultaneously compelling and horrifying.

Here is the abstract from his law review article:

[i]Probate inventories, though perhaps the best prevailing source for determining ownership patterns in early America, are incomplete and fallible. In this Article, the authors suggest that inferences about who owned guns can be improved by using multivariate techniques and control variables of other common objects. To determine gun ownership from probate inventories, the authors examine three databases in detail?Alice Hanson Jones?s national sample of 919 inventories (1774), 149 inventories from Providence,1778 WILLIAM AND MARY LAW REVIEW [Vol. 43:1777 Rhode Island (1679-1726), and Gunston Hall Plantation?s sample of 325 inventories from Maryland and Virginia (1740-1810). Also discussed are a sample of 59 probate inventories from Essex County, Massachusetts (1636-1650), Gloria L. Main?s study of 604 Maryland estates (1657-1719), Anna Hawley?s study of 221 Surry County, Virginia estates (1690-1715), a sample of 289 male inventories from Vermont (1773-1790), and Judith A. McGaw?s study of 250 estates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (1714-1789). Guns are found in 50-73% of the male estates in each of the eight databases and in 6-38% of the female estates in each of the first four databases.

Gun ownership is particularly high compared to other common items. For example, in 813 itemized male inventories from the 1774 Jones national database, guns are listed in 54% of estates, compared to only 30% of estates listing any cash, 14% listing swords or edged weapons, 25% listing Bibles, 62% listing any book, and 79% listing any clothes. Using hierarchical loglinear modeling, the authors show that guns are more common in early American inventories where the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class?or where the inventories were more detailed.

The picture of gun ownership that emerges from these analyses substantially contradicts the assertions of Michael Bellesiles in Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Arming America). Contrary to Arming America?s claims about probate inventories in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America, there were high numbers of guns, guns were much more common than swords or other edged weapons, women in 1774 owned guns at rates (18%) higher than Bellesiles claimed men did in 1765-1790 (14.7%), and 87-91% of gun-owning estates listed at least one gun that was not old or broken. The authors replicated portions of Bellesiles?s published study in which he both counted guns in probate inventories and cited sources containing inventories. [b]They conclude that Bellesiles appears to have substantially misrecorded the seventeenth and eighteenth century probate data he presents.[/b] For the Providence probate data (1679-1726), Bellesiles has misclassified over 60% of the inventories he examined. He repeatedly counted women as men, counted about a hundred wills that never existed, and claimed that the inventories evaluated more than half of the guns as old or broken when fewer 2002] COUNTING GUNS IN EARLY AMERICA 1779 than 10% were so listed. Nationally, for the 1765-1790 period, the average percentage of estates listing guns that Bellesiles reports (14.7%) is not mathematically possible, given the regional averages he reports and known minimum sample sizes. Last, an archive of probate inventories from San Francisco in which Bellesiles claims to have counted guns apparently does not exist. By all accounts, the entire archive before 1860 was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. Neither part of his study of seventeenth and eighteenth-century probate data is replicable, nor is his study of probate data from the 1840s and 1850s. (emphasis added)[/i]

In light of the stories Jim told at his presentation today, the highlighted portion of the abstract seems quite charitable. Over a period of several years, evidence of academic fraud or gross incompetence accumulated, resulting in Bellesiles’ resignation from Emory University. ( http://www.emorywheel.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2002/10/25/3db9bc0a08df2 )

I found two aspects of this story particularly troubling. The first was the manner in which professional historians circled the wagons around Bellesiles when the evidence of problems first emerged. The root problem is that no one who was defending Bellesiles had checked his sources. Those who had checked the sources (Jim and some others) were the people crying foul. For all of the criticism leveled against student-edited law journals, they at least provide that check.

Second, if Jim’s reports are accurate, the media stumbled badly on this, sometimes out of an abundance of caution, and other times for what appears to be political motivation. (Bellesiles’ book was seen as useful to anti-gun activists.) An interesting detail from this aspect of the story is that Anna Marie Cox (i.e., Wonkette http://www.wonkette.com/ ) was working on a story about Bellesiles’ book for The Chronicle of Higher Education. After interviewing Jim, she became convinced that the book had problems. Wonkette was ultimately fired from the Chronicle, and Jim suggested a possible connection between that event and this story. [Jim gives “the rest of the story” in his own post at Volokh Conspiracy: http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_04_03-2005_04_09.shtml#1112856783 ]

UPDATE: Jim menioned that Glenn Reynolds was on this story from the beginning. Was he ever! Here is list of Instapundit posts with the word “Bellesiles,” dating back to April 17, 2002 ( http://www.theconglomerate.org/2005/04/"http://www.instapundit.com/mt/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=Bellesiles ). In one recent post, Glenn takes professional historians to task for their disdain of legal scholarship. ( http://instapundit.com/archives/021032.php ) Worth the read.

UPDATE 2: Ann Althouse was also at the talk, and she blogs it here ( http://althouse.blogspot.com/2005/04/two-noon-talks.html ).


[Jim Lindgren, April 7, 2005 at 2:53am] 0 Trackbacks / Possibly More Trackbacks

I spoke at Wisconsin on Wednesday and will speak at Duke on Saturday.–

I’m off later today to Duke for this weekend’s conference on Term Limits for Supreme Court Justices, where Steve Calabresi and I will be presenting our paper advocating a constitutional amendment for 18 year term limits.

On Wednesday, I presented at the University of Wisconsin on the scandal involving Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=692421 ). One of my favorite bloggers, Ann Althouse, was there, as was her colleague Gordon Smith, whom I hadn’t met before. Both were very charming and interesting, and every seat in the room was taken. Ann blogged about the talk on Althouse and Gordon blogged about it on Conglomerate. Glenn links to Gordon.

Gordon reviews some of my arguments and mentions a Wonkette angle. As I told the group, Ana Marie Cox (Wonkette) was the reporter assigned by the Chronicle of Higher Education to do an in-depth story on Bellesiles in late August/early September 2001. In 2001, the Chronicle was vigorously defending Bellesiles and was willing to print as fact ridiculous stories that he told them. Much later a Chronicle reporter privately apologized to me, and said that they were taken in and had gotten the story all wrong.

At the time, however, they were Bellesiles’s strongest supporters in the press. Cox is very smart and well educated, so despite the Chronicle’s strong editorial bias, I decided to try to get her to examine the evidence, not just guess at what was going on, as most historians were doing. The Boston Globe and the National Review were also working on major stories at the time. The Globe reporter actually went to Vermont to check out our claims and won a prize for confirming our research.

I sent Cox copies of probably over 100 records that Bellesiles cited so that she could see a dozen examples supporting each and every major claim ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=692401 ) that we were making in our scholarly article, at least where the documents Bellesiles claimed to have read actually were in existence. Cox interviewed me several times for extended periods of time, as she almost certainly interviewed Bellesiles as well. I believe that Cox was beginning to understand the major problems with the book, though she never actually said that to me. Suddenly, Cox called me crying, saying she had been fired and taken off the story for the rest of her time there. Although she said that the`stated reason was that they were unhappy with a previous story, I suspect that she didn’t actually believe this, nor would that have necessitated removing her from the Bellesiles story before she left the Chronicle. I strongly suspected that Cox was fired because she was getting too close to writing the truth about Bellesiles.

So then the Chronicle took over Cox’s story and wrote a pro-Bellesiles story (including swallowing Bellesiles’s ludicrous claim that someone had hacked his website, removing true data that did NOT support his book, replacing it with phony data that did support the book, including listing a book of 18th century pornography in a probate inventory of assets). Unfortunately for Bellesiles, I had downloaded his website the day before the weekend he claimed to have discovered the porn, the weekend on which he claimed to have discovered the porn, and the Monday morning AFTER the weekend on which he claimed to have discovered the porn. Indeed, some of the probate lists were still up on his site even after the Chronicle ran its story. Guess what? No porn listed. Emory, which obviously could track uploads to his site, did an internal investigation, which apparently went just as badly for him as all the other internal and external Emory investigations.

The Chronicle story also claimed falsely that I was unavailable for comment, even though I had spent perhaps 90 minutes being interviewed several times by Cox in the 2-3 weeks that the story was in development, and no other reporter had left any messages for me, a fact that the Chronicle reporter whose byline appeared on the story admitted to me (though the new reporter said she called). Cox apologized profusely for the falsehood, but she had been pulled from the story, so there was nothing she could do. I had hoped that the Chronicle would correct their falsehood about not having talked to me, but instead they repeated it again in response to a letter to the editor from Joyce Malcolm. They also strategically edited out of Randy Barnett’s very short letter to the editor his sentence pointing out how unlikely it was that Bellesiles would post true data NOT supporting Arming America and then a hacker would replace it with false data supporting Arming America.

Since my mention of Cox (Wonkette) was flagged on two blogs today, I thought I would fill in the background story. You can read my early 2002 account of the scandal here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=692421

A liberal making up statistics to suit his argument…shocking. No suprise the rest of the academics supported this drivel.

I think it was just common sense that in the days before telephones, automobiles and organized police forces that citizens relied on themselves for protection. Clearly a gun was the most efficient and practical way to do so.

Common sense has no place in academics these days I guess.

[quote] hedo wrote:
A liberal making up statistics to suit his argument…shocking. No suprise the rest of the academics supported this drivel. [\quote]

A conservative taking a single example and using it to make a sweeping generalization about an entire population…shocking.

[quote]merc63 wrote:
hedo wrote:
A liberal making up statistics to suit his argument…shocking. No suprise the rest of the academics supported this drivel. [\quote]

A conservative taking a single example and using it to make a sweeping generalization about an entire population…shocking.[/quote]

Have you read this guys book? What are your thoughts on it?

Certainly the libs have earned that swweping generalization based on their actions.