Prof. resigns; faulty gun research cited

By MELISSA SECKORA  |  Oct. 28, 2002 at 12:19 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Emory University has accepted the resignation of a history professor whose work on the use and ownership of firearms in early America has been widely criticized.

Emory Associate Vice President Jan Gleason announced Friday that Michael Bellesiles' resignation would be effective Dec. 31. Bellesiles is the author of "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," an award-winning book that appeared to confirm that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right to bear arms and that individual gun rights were unimportant to America's founders.

However, Emory released a 40-page indictment of Bellesiles' research composed by a committee of three historians as well as Bellesiles' 7-page response in which he denied any wrongdoing.

The basic thesis of "Arming America" is there were very few guns in early America and that most of the guns that did exist were old and broken. Bellesiles published an article on the subject in 1996 in the Journal of American History -- a piece that was named "Best Article of the Year" by the Organization of American Historians. The book won the 2001 Bancroft Prize, the most-prestigious prize in American-history writing. Columbia is investigating the possibility of revoking the prize.

But over the past year, critics of "Arming America" claimed that Bellesiles miscounted, misinterpreted and made up substantial portions of the information in the book.

The critics said Bellesiles' work focused on nonexistent probate records that he said he read in San Francisco and in Providence, R.I. However, the San Francisco records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and many of the Providence documents that Bellesiles says he read apparently never existed. Bellesiles has also said that his research notes were destroyed in a flood in his campus office, a story that people at Emory familiar with the flood have cast doubt on.

After questions were raised in the media and in faculty workshops at Columbia, Yale, and other major universities, Emory's dean, Robert A. Paul, convened a panel of historians to investigate the charges. The committee was led by Stanley N. Katz of Princeton and included Hanna H. Gray, a former president of the University of Chicago; and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard.

The committee's investigation focused on Bellesiles' use of probate records. Of particular interest was a key table on which the author's thesis is grounded. The committee's report stated: "Evaluating Table One is an exercise in frustration because it is almost impossible to tell where Bellesiles got his information. His source note lists the names of 40 counties, but supplies no indication of the exact records used or their distribution over time. After reviewing his skimpy documentation, we had the same question as (one reviewer) Gloria Main: 'Did no editors or referees ever ask that he supply this basic information?' ... The best that can be said about his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work."

The committee also agreed with James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern University, that the scandal could have been avoided with "more conventional editing" by The Journal of American History, and with Ohio State historian Randolph Roth, who determined that Bellesiles' numbers were "mathematically improbable or impossible."

Additionally, the committee found that "no one has been able to replicate Bellesiles' results (on the low percentage of guns) for the places or dates he lists"; that he conflated wills and inventories, which "greatly reduced the (reported) percentage of guns in estates"; he took a "casual approach" to gathering data; "(raised) doubts about his veracity" in claiming to have worked with records in California; and raised questions about his use of microfilm at the National Archives Record Center in East Point, Ga.

Committee members also called implausible Bellesiles' claim that false data on his Web site was put there by a hacker and his disavowal of e-mail messages that he wrote to researchers, giving the wrong location for almost all of his probate research.

In a statement, Bellesiles said: "All that remains in question are the few paragraphs and table on probate materials. On those paragraphs, Emory's committee of inquiry found no evidence of fabrication, though they do not charge evasion."

"I have never fabricated evidence of any kind nor knowingly evaded my responsibilities as a scholar," he wrote. "I have never consciously misrepresented any data or evidence. ... I will continue to research and report on the probate materials while also working on my next book, but cannot continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment."

Melissa Seckora is an editorial associate at National Review magazine.

Trending Stories