Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

Michael A. Bellesiles, Author Alfred A. Knopf $30 (624p) ISBN 978-0-375-40210-4
Like most students of U.S. history, Bellesiles (Emory University) believed gun-related violence was inextricably woven into the American past from its earliest days. Then he started studying county probate records as part of a project about the early American frontier. To his surprise, he found that for the years 1765 to 1770, only 14 percent of probate inventories listed a gun. Further study convinced Bellesiles that American gun culture began only with the Civil War. Sickened by the carnage associated with guns today, Bellesiles, in his second book (following Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier), is agenda driven. If U.S. society has, as he contends, been largely free of gun-related violence in the past, then it could be again. This agenda, however, does not taint Bellesiles's scholarship. Through examination of ""[l]egal, probate, military and business records, travel accounts, personal letters"" and other primary sources, he painstakingly documents the relative absence of guns before the Civil War--and the rise of the gun culture in its wake, due to an increasingly urban populace now accustomed to shooting and newly industrialized gun manufacturers tooled up to mass-produce firearms. This combination of factors, he argues, led to the violence-prone American ethos, one that fetishizes guns. Bellesiles's approachable writing style makes easily digestible this revision of the historiographical record. ""The question is one of cultural primacy,"" Bellesiles contends. ""What lies at the core of national identity?"" His answer is bound to inflame today's impassioned controversy over gun control. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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