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John Wilson

Arming America

The epigraph to Michael Bellesiles's brilliant new book is taken from one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, "The Sign of the Broken Sword":

"I am only looking for one word," said Father Brown. "A word that isn't there." … "Right you are," said the big man called Flambeau cheerfully. "Let us be gin at the wrong end. Let's begin with what everybody knows, which isn't true."

What "everybody knows" about Americans and guns is that we have always been a gun-toting people. In the Colonial era, the distinguished historian Daniel Boorstin explains, "the requirements for self-defense and food-gathering had put firearms in the hands of nearly everyone." Similar observations appear again and again in scholarly works and popular histories.

And these statements about America's unique gun culture often go further still, not simply asserting that our forebears packed iron out of practical necessity but insisting that guns answer to something intrinsic to the American psyche, rooted in the fierce spirit of in dependence and the lightly suppressed readiness for violence celebrated in movies like The Patriot.

So, Bellesiles observes, faced with extraordinarily high levels of gun violence—with schoolyard massacres and drive-by shootings and lethal rampages by disgruntled employees—"many if not most Americans seem resigned to, or find comfort in, the notion that this violence is immutable, the product of a deeply imbedded historical experience rooted in the frontier heritage." After all, everybody knows that it has always been this way.

Everybody knows—but as Bellesiles shows in the course of this massively documented, superbly argued narrative, what "everybody knows" is simply not true. Far from being nearly universal in early America, "gun ownership was exceptional in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier."

Much of Arming America is devoted to making the case for that counterintuitive conclusion. By the time ...

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