Man Without Qualities

Sunday, September 29, 2002

A Few Second Amendment Thoughts

James Lindgren's article "Fall from Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal" does a pretty thorough job of debunking "Arming America," even inverting much of Bellesiles' argument:

If guns were already more common in the eighteenth century than Bellesiles says they were on the eve of the Civil War, then his narrative of how we got from low gun ownership to high gun ownership collapses into the opposite story of a shift from high gun ownership to somewhat lower gun ownership.

But after reading Lindgren's article I found myself asking if there is still a research project to be accomplished there, the one that Bellesiles should have focused on in the first place: Can we determine how widespread was late 18th century and early 19th century ownership of guns of the type used by state militias.- not just of guns. Did ownership of militia-type guns increase over the 19th century.

For example, Professor Lindgren points out at one juncture:

"Bellesiles confuses arms produced at militia musters with arms owned. There were many guns that would have been suitable for shooting birds (“ fowling pieces” ) or vermin, or for hunting larger animals, that would not meet the standards of the day for battle muskets, which were very heavy with extremely long barrels. It is somewhat akin to confusing an M-16 with a shotgun."

As Professor Lindgren also points out (although he is certainly not the first to do so and does not claim to be) as a work of history, Arming America does not directly advocate any gun policies, one argument that emerges from his conclusions is that if guns were not widely owned in the late 18th century and early 19th century, then it is unlikely that gun owning was understood as an individual right in the Second Amendment.

Today, there seems to be a growing belief (if not yet a consensus) that "an individual right in the Second Amendment" may extend only to guns of the type used or potentially used in a militia.

It therefore seems relevant to try to determine historically not just whether ownership of all guns was widespread in the late 18th century and early 19th century. "[G]uns that would have been suitable for shooting birds (“ fowling pieces” ) or vermin, or for hunting larger animals, that would not meet the standards of the day for battle muskets' may not be as relevant in determining whether the Framers of the Second Amendment meant it to create an "individual" or "individual and fundamental" right.

Perhaps such research has already been done, or perhaps it can be extracted from the raw data already accumulated in the process of cleaning up after Bellesiles. There is some suggestion that such extraction may already have been done, as where Professor Lindgren writes:

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 is old or broken and now claims that the majority of guns are so low-valued that he reappraises them as old or broken. 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. 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.

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.

In any event, it would be interesting, to me at least, to know if militia-worthy gun ownership was common in late 18th century and early 19th century America.

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