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John Wilson

Stranger in a Strange Land: The Scandal of Arming America.

A prizewinning work of history doesn't stand up to examination.

Readers who go back with us as far as September/October 2000 may remember the cover story of that issue, in which I reviewed Michael Bellesiles's book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. I was badly wrong in my judgment, though it took me a while to grasp just how wrong. And I had plenty of company. My piece turned out to be one of many that praised the book, often in extravagant terms. And many of the reviewers were themselves distinguished historians: Garry Wills, in The New York Times Book Review; Edmund Morgan, in The New York Review of Books; Fred Anderson, in the Los Angeles Times (Anderson's massive history of the Seven Years' War as well as an earlier volume on the Massachusetts militia covered some of the same historical terrain surveyed by Bellesiles); and more.

Bellesiles's principal claim was strongly counterintuitive: guns were much less common in early America than is routinely supposed. Not until the 1830s, he argued, did the beginnings of a substantial gun culture develop in the United States, and that was largely in the context of a new American "sporting culture" on the English model. And even then, it required the industrialization of the arms industry, beginning in the 1840s, and, most crucially, the Civil War to transform Americans into the famously gun-toting people we are today.

But in the course of advancing that central argument, Bellesiles wove many other subjects into his narrative. He made me realize how anachronistic our conceptions of early gun battles tend to be. He sketched the brutal conflict between European settlers and the Indians they dispossessed with unsentimental candor. He persuasively chronicled the general ineffectiveness of the militia in the colonial period and during the Revolution. All this and a good deal more he managed with considerable verve. I found the book to be of unfailing interest, despite its length.

Reaction to Arming America was strong and swift. While Bellesiles declined to spell out any present-day ...

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