Responding to Bogus on His Arming America Review.--

Carl Bogus responded to an earlier post of mine. I told this story of his behavior immediately before he published a review of Arming America in the Texas Law Review:

I remember during the dispute over Arming America that Bogus was writing a review and sought my permission to cite one of my unpublished drafts. Before I called him, I confirmed that his own university library’s special collection had a copy of the published Providence Probate records that Michael Bellesiles had used – and grossly misrepresented in Arming America. I called Bogus, gave him the name and number of the reference librarian I spoke with, and tried to get Bogus to spend an hour in his own university’s library confirming that there were major problems with Bellesiles’s account before Bogus finalized his review. Bogus refused even to look at the contrary evidence I urged him to examine, a decision that in part led him to seriously misjudge the work he was reviewing.

Bogus responded to this story, not by disagreeing with anything I said, but merely by quoting some noncommittal statements from his review.

The book review I wrote stated: “A potentially damaging attack on Bellesiles probate data has been launched by James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather. Lindgen and Heather argue, first, that probate records may not be a reliable reflection of how many people owned guns, and second, that Bellesiles has underrepresented the number of guns in the probate records. As of this writing, the Lindgren-Heather paper has not been published and Bellesiles has not responded in writing.” I provided a web address where Lindgren and Heather’s study could be obtained, and added: “Though they restrict their analysis to probate data, their criticisms about Bellesiles’s methodology are sufficiently serious to have potentially broader implications. A rush to judgment at this stage, however, would be unwise and unfair.” Carl T. Bogus, “Shootout,” 79 Texas L. Rev. 1641, 1652 (2001).

If this is all that Bogus had said on the relevant matters covered directly and by implication in his review of Arming America, perhaps that might have been adequate. But it’s worth quoting at length from Bogus’s review in the Texas Law Review to get a feel for his opinion of the book, Arming America, and his spin on the dispute over its veracity.

Bogus opened the review with this gushing praise:

It is as if Michael A. Bellesiles has overturned a table on which rested everything we thought we knew about guns in early America. The images of the rifle hanging over every American mantle; of settlers depending upon their guns to hunt and feed themselves and protect their communities against Indian attack; of Americans becoming skilled sharpshooters on farms and in the backwoods; of the colonial militia rushing from their homes with muskets in hand to face the Redcoats; of the American founders believing in an individual right to keep and bear arms; of a "wild west" inhabited by gun-toting cowboys--all of this, and more, turns out to be myth.

Bellesiles, a history professor at Emory University, is not merely upsetting the conventional wisdom of the lay public, however. What makes Bellesiles's work so important is that his evidence--much of it from his own original research--challenges what historians have traditionally believed as well.

Bellesiles explores the development of an American gun culture by following the hardware. He relentlessly focuses on the guns themselves: how many there were, who made them, who had them, where they were kept, and how they were used. Two broad themes emerge. First, rather than being symbols of rugged individualism or liberty, guns in early America were considered community property and subject to strict governmental regulation--far stricter than anything imagined today. Second, rather than being ubiquitous in the American frontier, there were, in fact, few guns in America until after the Mexican War. . . .

Bellesiles's research sheds new light on exactly how many Americans owned firearms. Bellesiles read 1,200 probate records from the frontier of northern New England and western Pennsylvania during the period from 1765 to 1790. These records are considered highly reliable because the practice was to list everything, right down to broken cups and bent spoons. Only 14.7% of the records include firearms. Moreover, fifty-three percent of the guns are described as broken or otherwise dysfunctional.

Compare Bellesiles's discovery that only seven percent of homes had working guns at the founding of the Republic with the fact that more than forty percent of American homes have guns today. . . . Bellesiles convincingly shows that few Americans had guns until after the Mexican War.

The image of an armed civilian militia also implodes under the weight of the evidence. . . .

Bellesiles's book is widely considered a work of major significance. It has been warmly greeted by some of the nation's most distinguished scholars including Garry Wills, whose review appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, Edmund S. Morgan, who reviewed the book for the New York Review of Books, and Richard Slotkin, who reviewed it for Atlantic Monthly.

Garry Wills later told me that the book is a “fraud,” and in a CSPAN2 interview, he said that "People get taken by very good con men." Edmund Morgan also wrote me a letter that was less blunt than Wills, but made clear that he no longer viewed the book as correct. (Morgan based his change of heart on the same draft article by Justin Heather and me that Carl Bogus had read.)

Many of the claims that Bogus endorses in his review are false, including many of the ones quoted above. The sad fact is that, when Bogus published his review, many of these falsehoods had already been shown to be false by me, Clayton Cramer, Dave Kopel, Joyce Malcolm, and others. For example, I had already shown that the 14.7% claim that Bogus endorses was mathematically impossible.

Bogus begins his last paragraph of his Texas review with this bold statement:

Arming America is undoubtedly the most important historical work ever produced about guns in America. Bellesiles's thesis that there were few guns in early America and that America did not develop a gun culture until after the Mexican War challenges beliefs that the gun-rights community has long considered sacred.

Yet perhaps most important for today’s dispute was Bogus’s suggestion in his review that Bellesiles is being attacked so vigorously because he was telling the truth:

But the most telling indicia of the book's importance have come from those who have greeted it, not with applause, but with passionate attacks. Few books provoke this much hostility. It is as if the gun rights community decided that this was a book that had to be discredited. One is reminded of Plato's statement: "[t]hey deem him their worst enemy who tells the truth."

It is, however, truth that the attackers' claim is at stake. [Bogus then criticizes Clayton Cramer, Dave Kopel, and Joyce Malcolm, among others.]

So Bogus puts the truth of Bellesiles’s work directly at issue, but he was unwilling to go to his own library (after I confirmed with his librarian that they had the same records) to try to determine whether Bellesiles was, indeed, telling the truth. Then Bogus had the gall to slime Cramer, Kopel, and Malcolm (but not me) by suggesting that they were so worked up because Bellesiles was telling the truth about guns (if Bogus has ever publicly apologized to them, I’ve missed it).

As I explained at the time to Bogus, the published Providence records that Bellesiles used in Arming America had good indices. One had only to spend an hour or so looking up estates with guns to see that he had systematically misrepresented:

the condition of guns (contrary to Bellesiles’s claims, very few were listed as old or broken);

the gender of the decedents (Bellesiles claimed that they were all male estates);

the gender of gun owners in colonial probate inventories (contrary to Bellesiles’s claim that no women owned guns in probate inventories, when one Providence woman owned many guns);

the collective ownership of guns (Bellesiles claimed that many guns in Providence estates were listed as “King’s Arms” or “Queen’s Arms” and thus owned by the government, when only one of the many scores of guns was so listed); and

the existence of wills (Bellesiles claimed to have counted guns in over 100 wills that never existed because the decedents died intestate).

If Bogus had actually cared enough to check, it would have been obvious to him that Bellesiles was claiming in Arming America to have read dozens of wills that never existed, because the wills were not included in the probate files and the decedents were explicitly identified as dying without making a will. One doesn’t have to have any specialized knowledge to see that in dozens of cases Bellesiles's analysis was based on non-existent documents.

And the problems with the Providence Records went to issues central to the book and to Bogus's review: what condition guns were in, whether they were collectively owned, whether they were collectively stored, what sorts of individuals owned them, whether they were widely owned, whether they were too expensive to be widely owned, whether probate records were complete, and –- most importantly — whether Arming America was based on nonexistent or systematically misread sources.

But I couldn’t get Bogus to take even a cursory look at the evidence in his own library. Ultimately, Bogus's refusal to check caused him to write one of the most embarrassingly mistaken book reviews ever published in an American law review.

Bogus’s review not only raised the issue of the truthfulness of Bellesiles’s work, but quite irresponsibly suggested that particular pro-gun scholars were criticizing the book because it told the truth about guns, a grossly unfair position for a reviewer to adopt while he was refusing to take even minimal steps to inquire into the truthfulness of the work he was reviewing. As Clayton Cramer mentioned in comments to Bogus's response, Cramer had put scans of source documents up on his website, but law professors such as Bogus appear not to have been any more interested in them than he was in the Providence records.

Now Bogus has the nerve to complain about my recounting my efforts to save him from his embarrassing mistake, a complaint that lacks a denial of any of the facts that I accurately recounted.