The reasonable gun nut

Denounced by the NRA, a historian talks about the myth of early American gun ownership and his own fascination with firearms.



David Bowman
September 7, 2000 12:09PM (UTC)

"There are 250 million firearms in private hands," Bellesiles writes in his hefty new history, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," "with five million new guns purchased every year." The NRA would have us believe the nation was founded by gun enthusiasts, but Bellesiles maintains that Americans only fell under the spell of guns after the Civil War, when war-weary Yanks and Rebs returned home toting pistols and rifles.

Contrary to what Bellesiles calls popular "mythology," gun violence isn't deeply ingrained in American society or an essential part of our national character. In colonial times, muskets were clumsy to shoot and in short supply. Native American tribes were not conquered by gunpowder, but by Europeans forming alliances with opposing tribes. And the Redcoats were not felled by hundreds of patriot snipers welding muskets. Bellesiles relates that Brits searching the Wild West for shootouts found their Americans uncouth and drunk, rather than trigger-happy.

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It's assertions like this that make Charlton Heston and his NRA cronies apoplectic. As far as they're concerned, Bellesiles is just another liberal undermining the Second Amendment. Not that Heston has read "Arming America." If he did, he'd realize the book was, in fact, a 578-page love letter to firearms. Salon interviewed Bellesiles by telephone about his peculiar position.

Do you have a political agenda or are you just into guns?

I am into guns. I am also a historian trying to uncover an aspect of American history. That's what historians are supposed to do. I'm not agenda driven. I'm not trying to convince anyone to take a policy position. I am fascinated by firearms and I'm very interested in their history.

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You're in charge of the Center for the Study of Violence at Emory University in Atlanta. What's that?

An undergraduate program. What has long fascinated me as a historian is the discontinuity between modern violence and historical violence. We think the way we live now is the way it's always been and that's not the case at all. On a relative scale, the America Revolution was a very nonviolent event. Those who study murder found that murder rates in early America up until the 1920s were remarkably low. Compared to New York circa 1840, Paris was a far more dangerous place to live.

I was disappointed to learn in your book that Billy the Kid only shot three people.

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The numbers attached to his name are outrageous. The only true serial killer that we know of from the Wild West is John Wesley Harding. He was employed by large ranchers to get rid of small ranchers. Butch Cassidy almost never carried a gun and he never shot anyone -- except for maybe that final event down in Bolivia.

What's it like having Charlton Heston gunning for you?

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I wrote him an open letter because he wrote an editorial in Guns & Ammo attacking my research from a very postmodern perspective: Evidence doesn't matter. He said I had too much time on my hands. I pointed out that I write history and what use people make of it is their business, not mine.

He ended his attack with these words: "Just for the sake of debate, let's say the colonists didn't own many firearms. So what? It's irrelevant! Very few had printing presses, television stations or Internet access either. By the same 'logic,' would that make freedom of the press or freedom of speech any less important to our way of life?"

No, of course not. Framed that way. There is no relationship at all between gun ownership in the 18th and 19th centuries and today. And the reason it matters to Charlton Heston is because the NRA has long associated itself with an imagined history of America in which those who love freedom always owned firearms. And if that imagined history is demonstrated not to hold, they have to be doing what they should be doing -- which is basing their current political position on current political necessity instead of on an imagined past.

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You say Paul Revere didn't own a gun because it wasn't mentioned in his will, but Heston says Revere was just worried about the government confiscating it.

I'd like to know what his evidence is. When Professor Heston gets his Ph.D. and does the research, I might be open to persuasion. This is one area of law that in colonial America was far stricter and much more rigorously enforced than it is today. Cheating on probate was a very great crime because resources were thinly stretched. When someone died, every single item owned -- everything, even broken things -- was recorded. Guns had to be listed. So unless Charlton Heston can come up with evidence that they made an exception for guns, he should keep quiet. The British Common Law saw guns as belonging to the state. The state had all priority rights over firearms. They could appropriate them at any time without recompense. There was actually greater value placed on recording firearms than any other single item.

A really wonderful substory in your book is the development of guns into an efficient weapon.

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Thank you. The most interesting part of the story is how the technology of firearms improved over time. The production of them. The ability of a gun manufacturer to teach an amateur how to use a firearm.

How long did it take to fire a musket?

There's a great deal of disagreement on this. Those who use modern black powder can fire a second shot within 60 seconds. And yet you see some references to how it was possible to fire four shots in a minute. I don't see how anyone arrives at this figure; 18th century gun manuals allowed 90 seconds to fire and reload.

How many shots does an automatic like the Kalashnikov fire in a minute?

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You can empty a 15-shot magazine in three seconds. The question is how quickly can you put on another magazine. Conceivably, 90 shots in a minute. Easily. Did you know Kalashnikov himself just died? An amazing man. He held until the end that his weapon was one of the greatest inventions of human history because it gave anyone the power to be a revolutionary. Isn't that good?

So 90 shots in a minute vs. one shot in a minute. The Second Amendment has absolutely no bearing on the present. We might as well be talking about Star Trek phasers. James Madison could never have imagined the Kalashnikov.

That's the whole point. Their context was a national crisis in the Revolution. They didn't have sufficient firearms. The majority of Americans didn't know how to use firearms. They had no domestic firearms manufacturer and the militia was a disaster. The Second Amendment was conceived by Madison in that context. It would be a very different story if we were to rewrite the Second Amendment today from the perspective of a gun enthusiast. It would probably be exactly what they claim it is: That the individual's right to own firearms will not be infringed under any circumstances. But that's not what the Second Amendment says.

Now there is a counter argument to your observation: Original intent does not matter; it should be original meaning. Take the concept of free speech. Obviously the framers of the Constitution didn't want to extend free speech to their slaves. That's their original intent. But the meaning of freedom of speech is a universal right which with time has been extended. That's in keeping with the hopes of the framers.

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Using NRA logic, American citizens should have the right to own cannons, right? But not even Charlton Heston goes that far, does he?

That was an issue when I taught at Stanford last year. There was a guy who lived above the university who bought himself a Scud missile launcher. In fact, there is no law against it. It's up to Congress to specifically restrict the owning of any particular firearm and they had never specifically banned Scud missiles. Similarly, you may know that there was this gun called a Street Sweeper. When it was specifically outlawed by Congress in 1994, the manufacturer simply changed a few little details and changed its name so it became the Tech DC (which everyone said stood for "District of Columbia"). So, yeah, you can own a cannon. And cannons don't kill. Scud missiles don't kill. People kill.

Yet people didn't bring home cannons after World War II.

Not to my knowledge.

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Didn't anyone think of it?

I think you've framed it exactly right. I don't think it occurred to anyone until rather recently that any person would have the slightest desire to own a bazooka or Scud missile. Since the 1960s, there are people who want to own these things. Guns & Ammo -- which is a fascinating magazine -- has articles from time to time on this heavier weaponry. Some of the columnists have argued that there is nothing that forbids you from mounting a machine gun on your SUV -- if Congress wants to restrict mounting a machine gun on [an] SUV, they must repeal the Second Amendment. I think that is judicially incorrect.

It's interesting that the NRA has gone through dramatic changes in the last 20 years. Back in the 1960s, they were a sporting association. Their emphasis was on conservation, on maintaining preserves for hunters and on shooting ranges out in the open country for people to use. Since 1976 at the "Cincinnati Coup" (I think it's called) when the more conservative -- I use "conservative" in its true meaning -- leadership was overthrown by the reactionary leadership, it's changed dramatically. It's become very politically oriented. Back in 1968 the president of the NRA appeared before Congress to support limitations on firearms and to support outlawing the interstate shipment of firearms. Go back even further, to the 1930s, and the NRA supported the Federal Firearms Act. They supported outlawing machine guns.

When members of the NRA go to sleep at night, do they fantasize about how modern weapons could have changed history? If you sent Arnold Schwarzenegger with some "Terminator" machine gun back in time to the Battle of Bull Run, could he single-handedly have won it for the Union?

Not unless he aimed for Robert E. Lee. But he would have to be close to do that with a submachine gun. One extremely well-trained rifle unit could turn the tide of battle. The classic example is the second battle of Freeman's Farm, when Daniel Morgan's rifle company, 210 soldiers all trained in the use of the rifles, were given the order to target the British and German officers. They did so effectively. They killed General Phillips, commander of that wing of the British army. They destroyed the command structure of the British forces. This allowed the Americans to take advantage of the confusion and win the battle. [Pause.] Well-trained, that's the key phrase. Well-trained usage of advance technology almost always wins.

Have you yourself ever fired a gun?

Yes.

In a controlled situation?

I own firearms. I like to skeet shoot.

Yet people accuse you of being anti-gun.

This is a very strange thing. It's as if I were writing a history of the auto industry and mentioned the opposition of car manufacturers to safety features -- they did that, you know. That wouldn't make me anti-car. I'm glad that my fascination with firearms shows through.

I've never shot a gun. I would love to. Are you more of a man than me because you shoot and own guns?

[Laughs.]

Explain this manhood stuff.

That's another big topic. There is no doubt that American society equates gun ownership with masculinity. It's clear that American males have bought into it. The Sports and Hunting Trade Association states that 92 percent to 96 percent of guns in the United States are purchased by men. The NRA has been targeting women as consumers for the last six or seven years. According to the statistics, they have succeeded in increasing the number of women who own firearms by 50 percent.

I wrote a novel called "Bunny Modern" that glorified women with handguns. How culturally responsible am I and Arnold Schwarzenegger for America's obsession with guns?

This is way outside my field, but I'm impressed by Dave Grossman's argument that we are succeeding in training our young people to be violent. I don't see how you can see it any other way. If you familiarize any person with the use of violence in any form as a good thing, again and again, and repeat it in every medium, it's going to have an impact. They take civilians and turn them into soldiers by surrounding them with weapons, making guns second nature. I do martial arts. I'm very fond of aikido and karate. Each uses muscle memory. I think it's the same way that we train ourselves to see violence as a natural response. Our culture has done that.

So where do you stand on gun control?

I don't.

No?

I don't. I don't have ...

A stand?

I don't have a stand.

OK. Take automatic weapons -- should the Kalashnikov be restricted?

That's up to the representatives of the people of the United States. I'm not one of them. I'm not a representative.

Won't bite, eh? So when you're interviewed, people try to get you to take a stand?

Yes. But I won't. I'm a historian.

Do you have a historical position on automatic weapons?

[Laughs.] I've used them. They're exciting.

So does Charlton Heston know you're a historian who has a personal love affair with guns?

I don't know. He doesn't want to ask. I hope at least the difference between me and Charlton Heston is I have a sense of humor about all this. I'm not convinced that anyone in the NRA does. I don't like humorless people, I will be honest about that.


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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