April 06, 2005
James Lindgren & The Debunking of "Arming America"
Posted by Gordon Smith

James Lindgren 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, 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:

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. They conclude that Bellesiles appears to have substantially misrecorded the seventeenth and eighteenth century probate data he presents. 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)

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.

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 Ana Marie Cox (i.e., Wonkette) 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.]

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. In one recent post, Glenn takes professional historians to task for their disdain of legal scholarship. Worth the read.

UPDATE 2: Ann Althouse was also at the talk, and she blogs it here.

UPDATE 3: Welcome Instapundit readers! Feel free to look around. We have a lot of stuff here that might interest you.

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» Speaking at Wisconsin on Wednesday.-- from The Volokh Conspiracy ...

I'm off later today to Duke for this weekend's conference on Term Limits for ..." [more] (Tracked on April 7, 2005 @ 0:53)

» Jim Lindgren: How Wonkette lost her job at The Chronicle? from Legal Blog Watch ...
"Jim Lindgren tells a story on The Volokh Conspiracy today about Michael Bellesiles' disgraced book, ..." [more] (Tracked on April 7, 2005 @ 12:14)
» Jim Lindgren: How Wonkette lost her job at The Chronicle? from Legal Blog Watch ...
"Jim Lindgren tells a story on The Volokh Conspiracy today about Michael Bellesiles' disgraced book, ..." [more] (Tracked on April 7, 2005 @ 12:17)
» Abstract on Bellesiles scandal from Of Arms and the Law ...
"Update on the Bellesiles scandal. ..." [more] (Tracked on April 7, 2005 @ 15:59)
» Jim Lindgren: How Wonkette lost her job at The Chronicle? from Legal Blog Watch ...
"Jim Lindgren tells a story on The Volokh Conspiracy today about Michael Bellesiles' disgraced book, ..." [more] (Tracked on April 7, 2005 @ 16:39)
» Abstract on Bellesiles scandal from Of Arms and the Law ...
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