Fall From Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal (Part 3)


Mr. Lindgren is Stanford Clinton Sr. Research Professor at Northwestern University School of Law.


C. Was Homicide Rare?


Bellesiles claims that, in step with low gun rates, homicide rates were

low until the Civil War. Bellesiles claims that “[w]hites rarely assaulted

other whites in the colonies and almost never killed one another.”118 These

claims are not only unsupported by the evidence he offers, but also false.

Randolph Roth, who has studied homicide rates throughout early America,

exposes this error in his review in the William and Mary Quarterly.119 Roth

points out that homicide rates during much of the seventeenth century were

actually higher than they are today. In other places and times in early

America, rates were similar to those today:


The homicide rate for adult European colonists in New England

before King Philip’s War was as high as the rate in the United

States today, 7-9 per 100,000 adults per year. Before the Pequot

War, the rate was higher still: roughly 110 per 100,000 adults per

year, or 11 to 14 times the rate today. A number of those colonists

were murdered by Native Americans, but the homicide rate was

still very high if one discounts those murders, as Bellesiles does.120


How does Bellesiles make such a basic error? In part, he just presents

false counts in the records he cites or makes claims that could not possibly

be supported by the evidence on which he relies. For example, Bellesiles

claims that “in forty-six years Plymouth Colony’s courts heard five cases of

assault, and not a single homicide,” 121 citing the standard published version

of seventeenth-century records of Plymouth Colony courts.122


There are many homicide cases heard in Shurtleff’s Records of the

Colony of New Plymouth Colony in New England, and they are relatively

easy to find. One need only look in the indices to find the murder and

manslaughter prosecutions. As Randolph Roth writes:


The records cover 1633-1691, with some gaps. Bellesiles does not

state which 46 years he studied, but every contiguous period of 46

years contains homicides. The 11 homicides are in 1:96-97; 2:132-

34; 3:70-72, 73, 82, 143, 205, 5:159, 167-68, 264-65, 6:82, 113,

141-42, 153-54; 7:305-07. A probable homicide appears in 2:170-

71, and 3 suspicious deaths that may have been homicides in 3:202-

03, 217-18, 4:32-33, 5:141. The 3 multiple murders during King

Philip’s War are in 5:204-06, 209, 224. Three additional murders in

Plymouth Colony appear in William Bradford, Of Plymouth

Plantation, 1620-1647.123


Relative to other crimes, homicide prosecutions appear to be common.

Bellesiles misses every homicide prosecution in these records.


Nearly as stunning is Bellesiles’s claim: “[D]uring Vermont’s frontier

period, from 1760 to 1790, there were five reported murders (excluding

those deaths in the American Revolution), and three of those were

politically motivated.” 124 The source he cites for this count is the Vermont

Superior Court records. He presumably meant the Vermont Supreme Court,

since Vermont had no Superior Court in that period. But he could not

possibly have used these Supreme Court records to count murders for

thirty-one years in Vermont, from 1760 to 1790. As Roth explains about the

Vermont Supreme Court:


[T]hat court did not open until December 1778, and its minutes

from September 1782 to August 1791 have been missing since the

early twentieth century. In fact, Vermont, together with the rest of

New England, had an elevated homicide rate during the American

Revolution, and 70 percent of known adult homicides and probable

homicides in Vermont, 1760-1790, were committed with guns.125


Thus, Bellesiles could not have counted Vermont murders during 1760-

1790 in the source he cites because that source did not exist for more than

half of the period and is lost for most of the rest of the period. Where did

Bellesiles come up with his numbers for thirty-one years of Vermont data?

We may never know.


These are not the only problems with Bellesiles’s accounts of murder.

His counts in his main table of homicide data (Table 6)126 do not add up. He

relates that he has 735 cases of homicide and that he drew 501 cases from

one source and “an additional 184 cases” 127 from a list of newspapers. But

this still leaves Bellesiles exactly fifty cases short of his total of 735 cases.

Where did the other fifty cases come from? Readers are left to speculate.


Finally, Bellesiles’s unsupported claim that homicide rates rose after

the Civil War128 is much too simple a story. Just as the gun culture and the

romance of the gun were supposedly taking over (in the decades after the

Civil War), homicide rates were actually plummeting throughout much of

the country, while in the Reconstruction South murder was rising.129 The

relationship between guns and homicides over time is so complex that it

cannot be reduced to the easy formula put forward in Arming America that

high gun ownership and high homicide rates go together.



D. Were Privately Owned Guns Mostly in Poor

Working Condition?


While it is not surprising that government-owned guns might be rusting

away in armories during peacetime, Bellesiles claims that guns in private

hands were also mostly old or broken. For example, he claims that 53% of

the guns in frontier probate inventories were listed as broken or defective:

“An examination of more than a thousand probate records from the

frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania for the years

1765 to 1790 revealed that only 14 percent of the inventories included

firearms; over half (53 percent) of these guns were listed as broken or

otherwise defective.” 130 Bellesiles makes a similar claim about the guns

listed in Providence, Rhode Island, probate inventories: “More than half of

these guns are evaluated as old and of poor quality.”131


Neither claim is true. Justin Heather and I have completed a careful

analysis of data from four of the six counties in Bellesiles’s 1765-1790

frontier sample (those from Vermont) and a partial analysis of inventories

from the other two counties (those from Western Pennsylvania). So far the

rate of guns “listed” as old or broken is less than 15%, not the 53% that

Bellesiles claims.132 Bellesiles’s own website report on guns in frontier

Vermont now shows very few listed as old or broken.133


As to the Providence, Rhode Island, data, Bellesiles has dropped the

claim from the hardback edition of Arming America that the guns in the

inventories were evaluated as old or broken and now claims that the

majority of guns are so low-valued that he reappraises them as old or

broken.134 There are a number of problems with this claim. Most important,

historians should not reappraise 300-year old guns that they have never

seen based solely on evidence of their monetary value. Bellesiles does not

provide a sufficient basis for his reappraisal. He does not reappraise a few

very low-valued guns. Rather, he appraises the median-priced gun in

Providence as old or broken. The best evidence we have for what a typical

gun cost in Providence, Rhode Island, is the very probate data showing that

guns cost about one pound.135 This is consistent with other data, as I show

in the next Section. A new military-quality weapon in a time of war might

go for two to three times that amount, but that does not mean that an

ordinary working gun or fowling piece in a time of peace would go for

more than about a pound. In addition, Bellesiles should have at least

disclosed the fact that he made such a reappraisal in his original

publication. Instead, he claimed this reappraisal only after his error was



Finally, as to the frontier data on dysfunctional guns, Bellesiles says

that they are listed as such. It is not possible to change this claim based on a

reappraisal. Of the estates that Heather and I examined, 83-91% of them

listed guns that were not described as old or broken.136 This does not, of

course, indicate that most of these guns were of military quality or even

suitable for battle. Many were undoubtedly fowling pieces, better suited for

hunting birds. But this is solid evidence that many Americans owned

functioning guns.



E. How Expensive Were Guns?


Michael Bellesiles claims that guns were too expensive for widespread

private ownership, a claim that has often been repeated by positive

reviewers.137 Bellesiles writes that “a flintlock cost £4 to £5.” 138


Of course, everything was expensive in colonial America for a

populace that was very poor by today’s standards. Reviewers apparently

failed to note that Bellesiles provides no source for his claim about what

guns cost. Yet good evidence exists, and it conflicts with Bellesiles’s claim.


First, there are auction data. In North Carolina auctions in 1774, a

simple “gun” sold for less than £1 (median price: £0.8).139 This was

roughly the same as a table, a chair, a dictionary, a great coat, or a saddle.140

Comparing the cost of buying a simple shotgun or pistol at Wal-Mart today

to buying these other items would suggest that guns were not relatively

more expensive then than they are today.


We also have extensive probate data from the colonial period, most of

which shows median prices for guns not listed as old or broken from just

under £1 to about £1.5.141 Further, with median probated estate sizes in

1774 of more than £200,142 a gun at about £1 was a relatively minor

expense. Even if one rightly assumes that probated estates are skewed

toward the wealthier decedents, an analysis of the effect of wealth shows

that guns were listed in substantial portions of estates above the very

poorest.143 Only for estates below £10 did fewer than thirty percent of

inventories list guns. And, whatever the cost, people bought guns before

other seeming essentials. In the earlier colonial period, Gloria Main and

Anna Hawley both found more guns than tables or chairs or stools.144 When

men could afford to buy a gun, they did.145 This suggests either that they

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Clayton E. Cramer - 8/28/2002

If the evidence had been obscure, it might have been tolerable that historians were so easily taken in. What depresses me is how widespread the evidence was that Bellesiles was, at least, wrong. I've been reading a number of recent histories of Bacon's Rebelion; it is apparently well known that Governor Berkeley complained what misery it was to govern a colony when six out of seven men are "Poore Endebted... and Armed." At one point, Berkeley complained that Bacon had 2000 armed men behind him, and 600 men with guns actually showed up at the capital to back up Bacon--and this without any use of the public arms.

Historians operate on the "union card" principle: if you are a professor, you know what you are talking about; if you aren't, they ignore you (even if you have an MA in History and can document what you are saying). I am reminded of the famous lines from one of the late 19th century plays (by George Bernard Shaw?) A paraphrase: "What shall we do with this private? He is an idiot." "Make him a general, and then everything he says will make sense."

John G. Fought - 8/28/2002

Thank you for your careful and systematic work
on the whole range of factual errors in the book,
and for putting them into a clear relationship to
its argument. Everyone involved, with perhaps one
exception, is in your debt.