Remembering the Michael Bellesiles *Arming America* Controversy

BellesilesTwenty years ago an Emory University history professor named Michael Bellesiles published a book arguing that early Americans were not all that interested in guns until after the Civil War.  The book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culturewon the prestigious Bancroft Prize, but the prize was revoked when gun rights advocates and others challenged Bellesiles’s scholarship.  Bellesiles eventually resigned his post at Emory.  Today he works as a bartender and writes history.  His most recent work is A People’s History of the U.S. Military.

Over at The Week, Bill Black reflects on the Arming America controversy.  Here is a taste:

Arming America was published in 2000 to much acclaim. Historian Peter Onuf (later a founding co-host of the BackStorypodcast) called it a “myth-busting tour de force,” while a former president of the Organization of American Historians said it was “a classic work of significant scholarship with inescapable policy implications.”

The “policy implications” of Arming America were with respect to the Second Amendment. If, as Bellesiles claimed, individual gun ownership was not a significant part of American life when the Constitution was written, then it becomes harder to argue that the Constitution’s drafters were especially interested in protecting gun ownership as an individual civil right. The “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” looks more like a restatement of their right to “a well regulated Militia,” not a separate individualist claim.

This was a potent talking point in 2000. The Columbine High School massacre had occurred the year before and spurred a fierce national debate over gun rights; Arming America was quickly swallowed up in that debate. NRA president Charlton Heston lambasted the book’s argument as “ludicrous.” Bellesiles began receiving death threats and anonymous phone calls. Gun enthusiast message boards scrutinized every footnote in the book and began finding discrepancies.

More worryingly (from academia’s point of view), serious scholars began finding discrepancies too. Bellesiles claimed to have looked at more than 11,000 probate records; however, his footnotes did not specify how many records were from which county or from which time period. Bellesiles didsay he looked at 186 inventories in Providence, Rhode Island, where he claimed only 48 percent of the estates had guns and more than half of those guns were old or of poor quality; but the legal scholars James Lindgren and Justin Heather looked at the extant inventories (only 149, they said) from early Providence and found 63 percent of the estates listed guns, only one-tenth of them in poor condition. Bellesiles also claimed to have looked at hundreds of inventories from 1850s San Francisco, when San Francisco’s records had all been destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

In the face of these criticisms, especially a William and Mary Quarterlyforum in which other historians called Bellesiles’s work “biased,” “careless,” and “misleading,” Emory University appointed a special committee in 2002 to investigate the charges against Bellesiles. They found it hard to check a lot of his research, because rather than building a proper database for the 11,000 probates, he had instead taken handwritten notes on legal pads — which were almost entirely destroyed when a pipe burst in Emory’s Bowden Hall, flooding his office. As for the mysterious San Francisco records, Bellesiles explained he had actually used records from nearby Contra Costa County; the committee, however, had reason to doubt he had visited the Contra Costa archive when he said he did.

The special committee ruled that Bellesiles had fallen short of the American Historical Association’s standards for professional scholarship. Bellesiles resigned his post at Emory. His Bancroft Prize, which he had won the year before, was rescinded — what he now says was, “after the death of my mother, the worst moment of my life.”

Read the rest here.

Out of the Zoo: When Historians Ask “Why”

 

march for our lives

Some friends and I participated in a “March for our lives” in Kalamazoo back in March 2018.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her gun violence and her current research paper.  –JF

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I prefer not to think about my middle school years. I had braces, acne, and wore virtually the same outfit every day of the week. A self-proclaimed tomboy with a secret girly side, a goody-two-shoes who still wanted to be seen as “cool,” I still had a lot of things to figure out. I guess there were some good things that happened to me in middle school too– I got to learn history from Mr. Bussies, one of my favorite teachers of all time, and started what would become a six year track and field career. But all this being said, there’s no denying that middle school was a dark time.

At any rate, my middle school years were also dark for another, more serious reason. I was in seventh grade when a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut sent the nation reeling. I had always been pretty aware of current events growing up–I would hear about major hurricanes and earthquakes as they occurred, and I even knew about the movie theater shooting that took place in Colorado earlier that year–but I had never heard about anything like this. I remember my family turning on the news to find it plastered with reports of twenty-seven lives lost, flashing images of an elementary school surrounded by flashing police lights and a maze of crime scene tape. The next day in my current events class we learned more about the tragedy and discussed it together. All I remember thinking was why? Why would someone kill so many innocent people? Why could something like this happen? Why an elementary school of all places? 

Fast forward half a century into 2018. Yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, shocked and outraged students, teachers, and lawmakers around the country. Students organized walk outs and marches and cried out for reform. Even then, six years later, we still asked why. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen again? Why are we still fighting this battle?

As it turns out, we’ve been fighting this battle for much longer than I originally thought. I came across the topic of school violence yet again when mulling over potential subjects for my Historical Methods (HIST 258) research paper this semester. After nixing a few ideas for the essay, I thought it might be beneficial for me, a future teacher, to research something related to education. After a few minutes of brainstorming and Google searching, I discovered that one of the first major incidents of school violence not only took place in Michigan, my home state, but it occurred nearly a century ago, in 1927. This tragedy, a bombing at Bath Consolidated School, claimed 44 lives–as much as Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.

I’ve only just begun researching the Bath tragedy. Even so I find myself asking the same question I did back in 2018 and 2012: Why? However as I continue to study the tragedy, and as I learn more about the discipline of history, I am reminded there is rarely a simple answer to such a question. There is rarely a simple answer to any historical question for that matter. People don’t often fit into the neat little boxes we try to cram them into–even mass murderers, especially mass murderers, are far more complex than that. We try to decipher causes, try to put ourselves in century-old shoes, but our undertaking always turns out to be more ambitious than we planned. That’s why studying history is so hard sometimes. When we ask why, we tend to want a simple, neat answer that we can easily turn into some groundbreaking discovery or concise thesis statement. But what we have to learn to accept is the fact that the past is messy. People are messy. So it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to dive right into the mess.

Marianne Williamson is Right. We Have a Gun Problem AND a Culture Problem

Odessa

I am getting tired of the way the gun debate plays out in the wake of mass shootings.  Everyone tries to score political points or use the deaths of innocent lives to advance their own agendas.

For example, here is court evangelical Tony Perkins claiming that the problem is not guns, but evolution and the “driving of God from the public square.”

Others naively believe that mass shootings will stop if we just ban certain weapons.

Why can’t it be both?

Do we live in a violent culture?  Yes.  In one sense, the United States has always been a violent culture.  In another sense, there are clearly things going in our culture right now that were not present fifty years ago. It is thus worth thinking about changes over time when we try to explain why we have so many mass shootings.

Are guns a problem?  Yes.  If Tony Perkins is correct, and we do have a moral problem in the country, then why wouldn’t he support bans on assault weapons that can kill large numbers of people in short periods of time?  If Perkins believes that human beings are sinners, then I think he would be the first person to want to take these weapons out of the hands of sinful people who will use them to kill people.

I think Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson gets it mostly right.  Here is a taste of her recent op-ed in The Washington Post:

America does not just have a gun crisis; it has a cultural crisis. America will not stop experiencing the effects of gun violence until we’re ready to face the many ways that our culture is riddled with violence.

Our environmental policies are violent toward the Earth. Our criminal justice system is violent toward people of color. Our economic system is violent toward the poor. Our entertainment media is violent toward women. Our video games are violent in their effect on the minds of children. Our military is violent in ways and places where it doesn’t have to be. Our media is violent in its knee-jerk shaming and blaming for the sake of a better click rate. Our hearts are violent as we abandon each other constantly, breeding desperation and insanity. And our government is indirectly and directly violent in the countless ways it uses its power to help those who do not need help and to withhold support from those who do.

The darker truth that Americans must face now is this: Our society is not just steeped in violence; we are hooked on violence. And in area after area, there are those who make billions of dollars on deepening the hook. Until we see that, we will just have more violence. Our minds must awaken so we can see all this. Our hearts must awaken so we can change all this. And our politics must change so we can discuss all this.

Read the entire piece here.

Free Scholarship on Guns in America

aa79b-guns_1000

Earlier today we posted a syllabus on guns in America.  One of our readers directed me to a Project Muse website called Muse in Focus: Addressing Gun Violence.

Here is what it is all about:

Gun violence remains a pervasive public health crisis in the United States. As the country grows all too familiar with the cycle of violence, mourning, and inaction that takes place after any mass shooting, evidence-based research from experts and scholars is essential for any meaningful policy solutions to take place. In this spirit, and in collaboration with our publishers, we have decided to temporarily open up select content on Project MUSE that address the complex challenge of gun violence.

“MUSE in Focus: Addressing Gun Violence” is a selection of recent scholarship from Project MUSE publishers on gun violence, its effect throughout the culture, and its possible solutions. Our hope is that bringing these pieces together, and broadening their reach beyond the limits of our subscribing institutions, will help to inform the policymakers responsible for solving this crisis, as well as to educate researchers and other concerned citizens who seek evidence-based work on this topic.

Click here to access books published by Johns Hopkins University Press, University of Michigan Press, University of Massachusetts Press, University of North Carolina Press, Penn State University Press, Michigan State University Press, and University of Pennsylvania Press.   Authors/editors include Saul Cornell, Craig Rood, Angela Stroud, Nathan Kozuskanich, and Michael Hogan.

A Gun Studies Syllabus

Gun Show

The history website Bunk recently directed me to Caroline Light and Lindsay Livingston‘s “Gun Studies” syllabus at Public Books.

Here is a taste:

WEEK 1

“To Keep and Bear”: An Introduction to Gun Culture in the United States

This week’s readings seek to demystify and question what is meant by “gun culture” and to introduce some popular databases by which gun ownership and gun violence have been tracked and studied in the contemporary US.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

WEEK 2

“A Well-Regulated Militia”: Legal Foundations of “Gun Rights”

The week’s readings address the nation’s unique legal foundations, particularly the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, in which a right to “have and bear arms” was articulated, while exploring some of the transitions and exclusionary frames through which “Second Amendment Rights” have taken shape over time.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

WEEK 3

“To Secure These Freedoms”: Colonization, Slave Patrols, and Early Police Forces

How has firearm ownership and use been protected—or not—via the Second Amendment? Which populations have been excluded from the right to have and bear arms, and in the interest of which power structures?

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

Read the entire syllabus here.

Candida Moss on “Thoughts and Prayers”

El Paso Thoughts

According to theologian Candida Moss, “thoughts and prayers” can be good things, but they alone cannot solve the gun violence problem in the United States.  To suggest otherwise is bad theology.

Agreed.

Here is a taste of her recent piece at The Daily Beast:

The idea that prayer demands action has a biblical basis. We tend to assume that characters who pray also take steps to have their requests met. Dr.Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said, “When we read the story of Hannah praying for a child are we to assume that she stopped having sex?” Similarly most Christians (though not all) combine prayer with medical treatment when ill. When it comes to rectifying injustice and evil in the world the Epistle of James quite explicitly demands that we act: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16). 

Both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama agree. In a Sunday Angelus message in 2013, Francis said “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer… Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.” Just last year the Dalai Lama tweeted that although he is a Buddhist monk he is “skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.” 

The necessity of both prayer and action are recognized by pro-life Christians who both pray to end abortion and seek to re-legislate Roe v. Wade. As John Fea wrote this week, the thoughts and prayers excuse simply would not fly in the case of abortion. Thus, the question is not, “are thoughts and prayers sufficient?” but rather “when does the loss of human life necessitate action?” Surely, for the conscientious Christian, the answer has to be “whenever it occurs.” 

The truth of the matter is that even if miracles happen and prayer has miraculous (as well as psychological) benefits, it is simply bad theology to suggest that prayer alone can solve the problem of gun control. Petitionary prayers (prayers that ask for things) do not always deliver what a person wants. There are countless people who have faithfully prayed to God and not received the thing that they asked for. This isn’t just historically true, it’s theologically true. There are all number of reasons this is the case. In the first place, God might have other plans. So we might “ask” but not “receive” in the way that we expect or want. Arguably the best example of this is Jesus himself. According to the Gospel of Mark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his death, Jesus kneels down to pray and asks his “Abba (Father)” to allow “the cup” (i.e. death) to pass from him. It is what he wants, but Jesus recognizes that the outcome will be what his father wants. It’s an example of obedience. but it’s also a story about a frustrated request in which through prayer Jesus discerned what he was supposed to do. It’s an important example because otherwise people who pray and don’t receive help are led to believe that they are spiritually failing.

Read the entire piece here.

Fox News Tackles My “Thoughts and Prayers” *Washington Post* Piece

Here is last night’s Shannon Bream show on Fox.   Fast forward to the 36:40 mark to see court evangelical Robert Jeffress and radio host Ethan Bearman discuss my recent Washington Post article on the connection between abortion and gun control.

I still want Jeffress to turn to his Twitter feed and his media outlets and propose serious gun reforms as an extension of his commitment to human dignity and life.

ADDENDUM:

It looks like Fox News removed the video. I think you might be able to see it on Jeffress’s Twitter feed:

 

When Does a Life Issue Demand Political Action and When are Just “Thoughts and Prayers” Enough?

abortion

In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, conservative evangelicals are offering lots of thoughts and prayers.  Many of them are saying that we need to solve the problem of mass shootings through a spiritual reformation.  The real problem, they preach, is the moral degradation of our culture.  Guns don’t kill people, mentally disturbed and sinful people kill people.

Here are a few recent tweets:

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, says that the problem is not guns, but marijuana, out-of-wedlock births, relativism, multiculturalism, progressivism, and a general “cultural collapse.”  In a strange turn in his piece, he randomly defends the late Southern Baptist segregationalist W.A. Criswell.

In some ways, these conservative pundits are correct.  We do live in a coarse culture.  I imagine future historians, if they are good, will see the rise of violent video-games, toxic social media, unprecedented access to unhealthy material online, intense political partisanship, and the presidency of Donald Trump as contributing to a culture that might lead to mass shootings. David Brooks is correct when he says that we have a culture problem.  And let’s not forget that the renewal of white supremacy and racism is also part of this cultural decline, something that Reno and most court evangelicals do not mention.

I agree that prayers are important.  We Christians have a spiritual responsibility to pray for those suffering in the wake of these horrendous shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  I am not entirely sure that calls for prayer and spiritual renewal will bring deep change in the culture (I am with James Davison Hunter on this point), but I do think that these things are important and our churches and pastors should be encouraging them.  I am enough of an evangelical to believe that anything is possible with God.

But I also worry that appeals to thoughts, prayers, and spiritual revival are often an excuse for not doing anything real and practical about guns in America.

Many Christian nationalists like to claim that our rights come from God.  They jump from Thomas Jefferson’s line in the Declaration of Independence about our rights coming from our “Creator” (1776) straight to the Bill of Rights (1791).  They assume that because Jefferson said it, it must be true for both founding documents.  But does the Bible really affirm a “right” to bear assault style rifles?  Did James Madison write the Second Amendment to reflect some kind of biblical mandate about self-defense, or was it written in the context of the colonial militia system practiced in eighteenth-century America, as historian Saul Cornell has argued?  (For the record, it is the latter).

The idea that the Constitution is a sacred document, ordained by God and informed by biblical principles, is popular among many American evangelicals.  As a result, sensible reforms in the area of gun control pose a threat to what is affirmed in a document that, for many God and country patriots, carries a level of cultural authority that is barely one notch below the Bible.  We can’t let those liberals take our guns!  Our right to bear arms comes from God and we must defend the document that makes us a Christian nation!  (See Carol Kuruvilla’s recent piece at HuffPost.  I was happy to contribute to it).

So we offer thoughts and prayers and calls for spiritual awakenings.  The problem is not guns, it is the people who use them.  Legislation will not solve the problem, so why bother with it?  Let a thousand assault rifles bloom.  It is our right to have them.  What did Charlton Heston say about his “cold, dead hands?”

I think most Christian nationalists would say that human life is valuable.  If this is true, then mass shootings are a “life issue.” Christians of all stripes believe that life is precious because God created us in His image.  This idea is at the heart of the anti-abortion crusade in America, but it has not gained any traction in the area of gun control.  When babies are aborted the Christian Right rarely talks about praying for the mothers who have the abortion or the families who have suffered through the decision.  Instead, they seek to solve the problem of abortion by trying to legislate morality through political organization, proposing bills, and voting for the right political candidates who will appoint the right justices who share their sacred (and borderline idolatrous) view of the Constitution.  (I have critiqued some of this approach in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

In other words, when it comes to abortion, conservative evangelicals act.  But when it comes to gun control, we just get thoughts, prayers, and calls for revival.

Over 600,000 babies were aborted in 2015.  What if evangelicals took the same approach to this large number of abortions that they do with mass shootings? If they took this route they would cease thinking creatively (and perhaps even legislatively) about this moral problem and retire to their prayer closets.  Why take the fight for the dignity of human life to the public square when you can just ask God to send another Great Awakening?

As Christians we must pray for God’s presence in our lives and culture.  May He heal our land and give us a glimpse of a coming Kingdom defined by love, peace, and justice.  But American history teaches us that reform usually happens when Christians act.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Let’s pass sensible gun laws.

ADDENDUM:  A shorter version of this post appeared, with a different title, on August  7, 2019 at The Washington Post.

Trump Has Failed to Stop the “American Carnage”

Trump inauguration

Conor Friedersdorf gets it right at The Atlantic:

President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address that the “American carnage” some in the nation were facing “stops right here and stops right now.” At his rallies, he speaks to supporters as if he has lived up to his pledge to “make America great again.” But it’s hard to feel that the United States is “great again” when men born and raised here keep going on mass killing sprees.

Read the rest here.

This is What a Presidential Speech Looks Like in the Wake of El Paso and Dayton

Obama immigration

From Barack Obama’s Facebook page today:

Michelle and I grieve with all the families in El Paso and Dayton who endured these latest mass shootings. Even if details are still emerging, there are a few things we already know to be true.

First, no other nation on Earth comes close to experiencing the frequency of mass shootings that we see in the United States. No other developed nation tolerates the levels of gun violence that we do. Every time this happens, we’re told that tougher gun laws won’t stop all murders; that they won’t stop every deranged individual from getting a weapon and shooting innocent people in public places. But the evidence shows that they can stop some killings. They can save some families from heartbreak. We are not helpless here. And until all of us stand up and insist on holding public officials accountable for changing our gun laws, these tragedies will keep happening.

Second, while the motivations behind these shootings may not yet be fully known, there are indications that the El Paso shooting follows a dangerous trend: troubled individuals who embrace racist ideologies and see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy. Like the followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations, these individuals may act alone, but they’ve been radicalized by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the internet. That means that both law enforcement agencies and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.

But just as important, all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy. We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language isn’t new – it’s been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world. It is at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much – clearly and unequivocally.

It’s almost as if Obama, out of love of country, could not just stand by and let Trump have the last word.

The Disarming of New Jersey Quakers, 1776

Shrewsbury

Friends Burial Ground, Shrewsbury, NJ

Earlier today I was reading the Journal of the Votes and Proceedings of the Convention of New Jersey (Burlington, NJ: Isaac Collins, 1776).  This is essentially the minutes of the New Jersey Provincial Congress) in the weeks leading up to and following the Declaration of Independence.  (The NJ Provincial Congress is the body that sent delegates to the Continental Congress, endorsed independence, and wrote the New Jersey State Constitution)

On July 1, 1776, the minutes state:

Whereas by a regulation of the late Congress the several committees in this colony were authorized and directed to disarm all the non-associators and persons notoriously disaffected within their bounds.  And whereas it appears that the said regulations hath not been carried into effect in some parts of the colony; and it being absolutely necessary, in the present dangerous state of publick affairs when arms are much wanted for the publick defense, that it should be instantly executed.  That the several colonels in this colony do, without delay, proceed to disarm all such persons within their districts, whose religious principles will not permit them to bear arms; and likewise all such as have hitherto refused and still do refuse to bear arms; that the arms so taken be appraised by some indifferent person or persons; that the said colonels give vouchers for the same, and that the appraisement and receipt be left in the hands of the person disarmed.  (Italic mine).

For those blog readers who know a thing or two about the American Revolution, have you ever seen a case in which a state legislature (or some other body, such as a local committee of safety) confiscates guns from those with a religious conviction against bearing arms (in this case, New Jersey Quakers)?   And if you have seen something like this before, were they reimbursed with vouchers or something similar?

If Only Adam and Eve Had Guns…

adam-and-eve

The Onion tackles this question.  A taste:

HOUSTON—In what they described as scriptural evidence of the right to bear arms, leading figures among the religious right gathered Wednesday to issue a statement arguing that Adam and Eve would never have been banished from the Garden of Eden if they had owned guns.

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Nationalists Love Guns

Guns and Bibles

A team of sociologists have published a study arguing that those who believe America is a Christian nation are less likely to support gun control.  Anyone who studies evangelicalism knows this instinctively, but thanks to Andrew Whitehead, Landon Schnabel and Samuel Perry we now have evidence that our hunches are true.

Here is a taste of their piece in The Washington Post:

In our newly published and freely available study, the connection between Christian nationalism and gun control attitudes proves stronger than we expected. It turns out that how intensely someone adheres to Christian nationalism is one of the strongest predictors of whether someone supports gun control. One’s political party, religiosity, gender, education or age doesn’t matter.

You could be a mainline Protestant Democratic woman or a highly educated politically liberal man — the more you line up with Christian nationalism, the less likely you are to support gun control.

Read the entire piece here.

What Did the Founders Mean By “Bear Arms?”

Reenactment

Here is J.L. Bell at Boston 1775:

Last month Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post on the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare—they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

Lawyer Neal Goldfarb checked more variations of the phrase in the same databases and came to the same basic conclusion.

In the 2008 Heller case, as everyone involved in this discussion knows, the U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia treated “bear ams” not as an idiom with a military meaning but as a general phrase about carrying weapons.

The data shows otherwise—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century used it as Scalia did. As with the Reynolds case I wrote about here, the court’s finding is simply at odds with historical facts. The Heller ruling overturned legal understandings that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and changed the law going forward, but such rulings can’t change the actual past.

Read the rest here.

Saul Cornell on the “Mythic Second Amendment”

CornellFordham University’s Saul Cornell, the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control, explains the myth that the Second Amendment relates to the history of the American frontier.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Bearing Arms vs. Hunting Bears: The Persistence of a Mythic Second Amendment in Contemporary Constitutional Culture“:

The myth of the frontier is one of the most enduring in American history; it has been commodified and used to market everything from cigarettes to cars, and has been central to firearms sales for more than a century. It is a little shocking that the same myths used to sell cigarettes played a pivotal role in two federal appeals court decisions: Moore v. Madigan and Peruta v. San Diego. Both cases evoked “the familiar image” of an armed “eighteenth-century frontiersman . . . ‘obtain[ing] supplies from the nearest trading post.” Contrary to this mythic view of the American past, the bulk of the nation’s population in the eighteenth century was clustered along the coast, not the frontier. Nor is there any evidence that members of the Founding era such as George Mason or James Madison were thinking about the plight of the tiny percentage of the American people who lived on the frontier when they discussed the right to keep and bear arms in the Virginia Ratification Convention. The debates in the First Congress certainly do not afford much evidence that this was a major concern. Given the realities of American society at this point in the nation’s history, such concerns would have been odd. In 1790, the mean population center of the United States, a standard measure of population distribution, was situated somewhere between Baltimore and Philadelphia, not western Kentucky, northern Maine, or the Ohio valley.

Frontier mythology has shaped another aspect of the current debate over firearms policy and the law. In response to the horrorific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre warned that the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”Setting aside the policy debates and statistics about the utility of armed self-defense, particularly in active-shooter scenarios such as schools, the suggestion that giving a guy a gun turns him into an effective agent of law enforcment, it itself part of a set of myths about regenerative violence dating back to colonial America. The leading historian of this mythology, Richard Slotkin, has charted how this motif has been constantly re-invented in American popular culture over the long arc of American history. David Crockett has morphed into Jason Bourne, and most recently the iconic image of a gun-toting hero is more likely to fight off alien invaders or the hordes of the zombie apocolypse than the marginalized others of earlier mythic tales of violence and redemption.

Read the entire piece at The Panorama.

Paige Patterson’s World

southwestern-baptist-theological-seminary

Paige Patterson‘s world is collapsing all around him.  This audio tape is the latest example.  The authoritarian, gun loving, Christian nationalist leader of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has suggested that women undergoing physical abuse from their husbands should submit to it.  Michelle Boorstein has it covered at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste of her piece “Southern Baptist leader pushes back after comments leak urging abused women to pray and avoid divorce“:

The leader of a major Southern Baptist seminary issued a statement Sunday pushing back after a 2000 tape surfaced purporting to quote him saying that abused women should focus on praying and “be submissive in every way that you can” and not seek divorce.

Paige Patterson is president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Fort Worth school whose Web site says it is one of the largest seminaries in the world. About 15 million people are part of Southern Baptist churches, the largest Protestant group in the United States. Patterson is slated to deliver the primary sermon — a high-profile honor — in June at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas.

Patterson, who declined to comment Sunday, is heard on an audiotape being interviewed in 2000 about what he recommends for women “who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands, and the husband says they should submit.”

“It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree,” Patterson says. “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel.” Only on an occasion or two in his career, he says, when the level of abuse “was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough,” has he recommended a temporary separation and the seeking of help.

He goes on to tell the story of a woman who came to him about abuse, and how he counseled her to pray at night beside her bed, quietly, for God to intervene. The woman, he said, came to him later with two black eyes. “She said: ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said ‘Yes … I’m very happy,’ ” because it turned out her husband had heard her quiet prayers and come for the first time to church the next day, he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Jonathan Merritt offers his opinion in another piece at The Post.  Apparently Patterson is delivering the keynote address at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in June.   A taste:

The seminary president is nearly untouchable among Southern Baptists, who revere him for decades of denominational leadership. But much has changed during Patterson’s reign as a religious gatekeeper. America has experienced a cultural reckoning where powerful men have been held accountable for abusive behaviors and dangerous comments.

After a wave of scandals from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein, most Americans have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for the abuse of women. We have collectively decided not to abide powerful men who have contributed to bodily violence. During the past year in particular, this cultural consensus has seemingly reached a fever pitch, touching every corner of America from Hollywood to Wall Street.

But are Southern Baptists ready for their #Metoo moment?

Patterson is scheduled to deliver the coveted keynote sermon when Southern Baptists gather for their annual meeting in June. It would be wise for denominational leaders to rethink this invitation lest they appear both culturally out of step and lacking in moral courage. Replacing Patterson will send a message to millions of Southern Baptist women that their bodies are not dispensable and that their valid concerns have been heard loudly and clearly.

Twitter is also weighing-in:

Patterson has responded here.

Of course this is not the first time in recent years that Paige Patterson and his crew at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary have gotten into trouble.  Remember this:

tweet-swbts

And this:

Gun and Board Meeting

Read about it here.  According to this report, Patterson requires all vice presidents, deans, and “at least three people in every building” at his theological seminary to carry guns.

 

Original Sin Liberalism

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Reinhold Niebuhr might be described as an “original sin liberal”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes about it in relation to gun control at Commonweal:

Here is a taste:

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature is prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, Dionne mentions Reinhold Niebuhr.

When a School Shooting Shifted the National Debate on Guns

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Saul Cornell, the best historian on guns and the Second Amendment working today, tells us about an 1853 school shooting in Louisville, Kentucky.  Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

And Cornell’s conclusion:

The Ward shooting, and the popular outcry it generated, reminds us that there’s another possible way to view the hierarchy of American rights—one in which the right not to get shot is on par with, and may even outweigh, the right to freely carry a gun and use it. The notion that the Second Amendment overrides these rights and prohibits sensible gun laws has never been the dominant position in American law. Most Americans in the 18th century and many in the 19th recognized this basic fact as fundamental to our Constitutional tradition. It is surely time to restore those other esteemed American rights to their rightful place in our contemporary constitutional debates over the role of guns in America.

Read the entire piece here.