Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Gunnie Book Review--Armed America

Clayton Cramer’s Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie is a response to Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America. Even though it’s a response, it stands on its own merits as a study of guns in early America. (Update: Cramer's blog is here.)

You probably remember Bellesiles’ book and the scandal around it. He argued that guns were not a factor in American life until the government flooded the market with surplus guns primarily after the Civil War, but also after the Mexican-American War. Academic historians and gun-banners loved the idea.

Gun-banners and too many academic historians accepted Bellesiles’ argument without question. Here was "proof" that showed guns were not important when the Second Amendment was written. It seemed to prove that without guns America had low crime (particularly white-on-white), that available guns were used for nefarious purposes such as keeping slaves in thrall, and that hunting was a rare pursuit of the well-to-do.

All seemed well for awhile until some historians, law professors, experts in old probate records, and Clayton Cramer began asking serious questions. More and more, they turned up evidence of misused sources that didn’t say what Bellesiles said they did. Some “sources” never existed at all.

Bellesiles eventually lost his tenured professorship even while proclaiming his innocence. Most former supporters now look at his book as fiction.

Cramer’s book is not just a point by point refutation although a few chapters show exactly how Bellesiles misused eye-witness accounts of travelers in America. Cramer has combed historical sources for any mention of guns, hunting, crime, and everything dealing with guns in America. He has produced a solid, convincing work.

When you read the book you get a sense of déjà vu, that there really is nothing new under the sun. You read about hunting seasons and restrictions that were promulgated in 1699. If you think concealed firearms are a new debate, they aren’t. Bans on carrying concealed weapons were passed between 1813 and the 1840s in response to brawling and too many murders. Concerns about lawlessness are nothing new.

There are a few places where Cramer guesses how to interpret historical information, but he identifies those instances and lets the reader decide. For instance, revolutionary war quartermasters were concerned about the supply of arms. Bellesiles might argue that such documents indicated guns were not available. Cramer uses at least some of the same sources and points out that quartermasters were concerned not so much with guns, but with bayonets. Just what you might expect with militia members armed with their own hunting rifles.

Similarly, having an army armed with rifles conflicted with military thinking of the time. Generals wanted to mass troops on a battlefield and have them fire volleys at similary massed enemy troops. Rifles took too much time to reload for effective volley fire, so muskets were the flavor of the day. Muskets however are smoothbore firearms using a ball that is a touch too small for the bore. They are not accurate and thus useless for hunting or home defense.

I would have liked to have seen more social history in Armed America. It would have been interesting to read how Americans expressed themselves about guns, crime committed with guns, and how anti-concealed carry laws got passed when the Second Amendment was more respected than it appears to be today. For that matter, I would also like to know how people of the day discussed that amendment, but that could be another book.

As a woman, I am always interested in how women used guns. Cramer points to probate records that indicate a fair number of female gun owners, but it is rarely shown if women used guns for defense, hunting, or entertainment particularly if they didn’t live on the frontier.

There’s a wealth of information in Armed America. I don’t know if many anti-gun people will read it and that’s a shame.

No comments: