Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

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9780756764210: Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

How and when did Americans develop their obsession with guns? Is gun-related violence so deeply embedded in American historical experience as to be immutable? The accepted answers to these questions are ''mythology,'' says Michael A. Bellesiles.

Basing his arguments on sound and prodigious research, Bellesiles makes it clear that gun ownership was the exception--even on the frontier--until the age of industrialization. In Colonial America the average citizen had virtually no access to or training in the use of firearms, and the few guns that did exist were kept under strict control. No guns were made in America until after the Revolution, and there were few gunsmiths to keep them in repair.

Bellesiles shows that the U.S. government, almost from its inception, worked to arm its citizens, but it met only public indifference and resistance until the 1850s, when technological advances--such as repeating revolvers with self-contained bullets--contributed to a surge in gun manufacturing. Finally, we see how the soaring gun production engendered by the Civil War, and the decision to allow soldiers to keep their weapons at the end of the conflict, transformed the gun from a seldom-needed tool to a perceived necessity--opposing ideas that are still at the center of the fight for and against gun control today.

Michael A. Bellesiles's research set off a chain of passionate reaction after its publication in the Journal of American History in 1996, and Arming America is certain to be one of the most controversial and widely read books on the subject.

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Review:

While gun supporters use the nation's gun-toting history in defense of their way of life, and revolutionary enthusiasts replay skirmishes on historic battlefields, it now turns out that America has not always had a gun culture, and wide-scale gun ownership is much newer than we think. After a 10-year search for "a world that isn't there," professor and scholar Michael Bellesiles discovered that Americans not only rarely owned guns prior to the Civil War, they wouldn't even take them for free from a government that wanted to arm its reluctant public. No sharpshooters, no gun in every home, no children learning to hunt beside their fathers. Bellesiles--whose research methods have generated a great deal of controversy and even a subsequent investigation by Emory University--searched legal, probate, military, and business records; fiction and personal letters; hunting magazines; and legislation in his quest for the legendary gun-wielding frontiersman, only to discover that he is a myth. There are other revelations: gun ownership and storage was strictly legislated in colonial days, and frivolous shooting of a musket was backed by the death penalty; men rarely died in duels because the guns were far too inaccurate (duels were about honor, not murder); pioneers didn't hunt (they trapped and farmed); frontier folk loved books, not guns; and the militia never won a war (it was too inept). In fact, prior to the Civil War, when mass production of higher quality guns became a reality, the republic's greatest problem was a dearth of guns, and a public that was too peaceable to care about civil defense. As Bellesiles writes, "Probably the major reason why the American Revolution lasted eight years, longer than any war in American history before Vietnam, was that when that brave patriot reached above the mantel, he pulled down a rusty, decaying, unusable musket (not a rifle), or found no gun there at all." Strangely, the eagle-eye frontiersman was created by East Coast fiction writers, while the idea of a gun as a household necessity was an advertising ploy of gun maker Samuel Colt (both just prior to the Civil War). The former group fabricated a historic and heroic past while Colt preyed on overblown fears of Indians and blacks.

Bellesiles, who is highly knowledgeable about weapons and military history, never comes out against guns. He is more interested in discovering the truth than in taking sides. Nevertheless, his work shatters some time-honored myths and icons--including the usual reading of the Second Amendment--and will be hard to refute. This fascinating, eye-opening account is sure to both inform and inflame the already highly charged debate about guns in America. --Lesly Reed

From the Publisher:

"Arming America is a myth-busting tour de force. Michael Bellesiles moves to the front rank of American historians with this deeply researched, brilliantly argued, energetically written, and timely book. It is an instant classic, one of the very most important works of historical scholarship published in recent years. In future years it will be impossible to talk about the role of guns in our civic culture without coming to terms with this superb study."
-- Peter S. Onuf, author of Jefferson's Empire

"NRA zealots beware! This splendidly subversive book will convince any sane reader that America's 'gun culture' owes little to personal self-defense in its pioneer past--or even to putting meat on the table. It was not the challenge of the wild frontier that armed Americans, but instead a relentlessly insistent federal government."
-- Robert R. Dykstra, author of The Cattle Towns

"Arming America is an exciting, timely book. Thinking people who deplore Americans' addiction to gun violence have been waiting a long time for this information. Michael Bellesiles has uncovered dramatic historical truths that shatter the 'Ten Commandments' hokum peddled by the National Rifle Association
and its ersatz Moses."
-- Stewart Udall, author of The Myths of August and The Quiet Crisis

"We can hardly understand the context for the Second Amendment without first reading Arming America. No one previously has given us such an authoritative account of firearms in our history from the colonial period through the Civil War."
-- Don Higginbotham, author of George Washington and the American Military Tradition

"Meticulously, even extravagantly researched, this book is a tour de force. Bellesiles has done what no one before has -- examine the fact behind American gun mythology. This book will transform the modern gun debate by moving it from hysteria to sensible analysis. In every respect, a superb piece of historical work."
-- Robert J. Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control

"This is stunning history, brilliantly argued. It knocks into a cocked hat our most cherished assumptions about guns and gun culture in early America, making us rethink one subject after another. What an eye-opener."
-- Alfred F. Young, Senior Research Fellow, Newberry Library

"At long last a superb book that systematically dismantles one of our most cherished and dangerous national myths. Bellesiles has made a major contribution to a significant public policy debate."
-- Robert C. Ritchie, Director of Research, The Huntington Library

"Arming America is an astonishingly original and innovative book, chock full of fascinating revelations. It ought to raise current controversies about gun control to a more fact-based and rational level. It is certain to endure as a classic work of significant scholarship with inescapable policy implications."
--Michael Kammen, Past President, Organization of American Historians

"This book changes everything. The way we think about guns and violence in America will never be the same. Neither will our notions of manhood, race, the rise of big business, or our national character. Neither will our understanding of the Second Amendment. Michael Bellesiles is the NRA's worst nightmare."
-- Michael Zuckerman, author of Peaceable Kingdoms

"Bellesiles has uncovered one of the most profound ironies in American history. The contemporary debate about the role of guns in American society has actually-- turned history on its head. While many early Americans rallied at their government for doing too little to arm the American people, some in contemporary America now rail at their government for seeking to limit access to weapons.-- No one interested in the controversial problem of guns in American society can afford to ignore this important book."
--Saul Cornell, author of The Other Founders

"Michael Bellesiles' work shifts the terms of the debate about the gun's place in the modern United States. Today we assume that the gun has always been central to American culture. Those who seek to limit its prevalence have largely accepted that they ask us to depart from a tradition of long standing. Bellesiles argues, however, that the centrality of guns is a recent phenomenon, dating form the mid-19th century. His research raises fundamental issues that go to the heart of widely-held but apparently erroneous assumptions about American gun culture."
-- Carla Gardina Pestana, author of Liberty of Conscience and the Growth of Religious Diversity in Early America

"This is a book for scholars and, above all, citizens, a wonderful work that bring historical insight and plain good sense to a critical national debate. With wit, commitment, and an unerring command of his argument, Michael Bellesiles shows us that gun culture has not always been embedded in American culture in the past - and perhaps doesn't have to be in the future. It's a lesson we all need to learn from a book we all need to read."
-- Greg Nobles, author of American Frontiers

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