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A historian's shot in the dark

By Dr. Michael R. Bowen
web posted November 12, 2001

A Mr. Michael A. Bellesiles has published a book, Arming America, in which he purports to show that the widespread possession and use of firearms in the early days of our nation is actually a myth. Through his historical research he claims to have found that gun ownership was actually rare in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that records show that the few privately owned firearms were worn-out or broken relics. He contends that the present so-called gun culture in America is actually a product of Hollywood and the wider familiarity with guns resulting from World War II.

These findings have been sharply criticized by reputable scholars on both sides of the gun debate. They have found that in many cases the records cited by Mr. Bellesilses simply do not exist; in other cases the records he cites show the opposite conclusion from the one he claims. When asked to produce his data, he has claimed that a basement flood destroyed his records, something like "The dog ate the history of the 18th and 19th centuries." It appears that Mr. Bellesilses' book will soon be shown on scholarly grounds to be a sophisticated lie, but meanwhile even non-scholars can easily recognize the flaws in his work. For example, if war was the genesis of our familiarity with guns, then the Revolution must have introduced "gun culture" to America in her cradle. And those weren't bows and arrows that the embattled farmers used at Lexington and Concord.

But it's another phenomenon I'd like to examine: the way a nation's popular vocabulary gives great insight into its culture. We are an automobile culture, so our language is full of automotive expressions: step on the gas, hit the brakes, running on empty, asleep at the wheel. Our culture is full of popular music, and so we say "let's rock", or "let's boogie", and fawning followers of public figures are called "groupies". Our fast-food lifestyle has led us to append the prefix "Mac" to anything produced cheaply in great volume; USA Today has been referred to as "McPaper".

So it is with firearms in our culture. Many of the gun-related expressions in our language are 18th and 19th century expressions, referring to functions of firearms which have not been in common use for more than a century. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to find a colloquial expression based on modern automatic weapons. Instead we have familiar expressions like these:

Son of a gun. Don't go off half- cocked. Quick on the draw. Keep your powder dry. "Bull's-eye", to describe an accurate deduction. "Double-barreled", to describe something which does two things at once, or has dual functions. "Pick off", a sniper's expression, to describe the easy elimination of an exposed and vulnerable target. A football expertly thrown a great distance is said to have been "rifled". When a man retires after campaigning vigorously for a cause, he is said to "Hang up his guns." A wild guess is called a "shot in the dark". To improvise quickly is called "shooting from the hip." A politician being stalked by investigative reporters is said to be "in the cross-hairs." A person who acts impulsively is called "trigger-happy."

Half-cocked refers to a mechanical feature of nineteenth-century revolvers. Keeping one's powder dry, of course, dates back to the black powder muzzleloading rifles of the 18th century and earlier.

America's birth and expansion was brought about by independent, enterprising individuals making a living far beyond the reach, control, or support of civic institutions. These people had to rely on themselves for everything, and that included defense. The language they handed down to us is full of references to the tools of their everyday life: horses, hatchets, ropes, farming equipment. We accept these expressions as echoes of our past; it's only when they refer to guns that we are asked to suspend our common sense.

If our language is any indication of our culture, America was an armed nation from its birth. Mr. Bellesilses is not an honest historical scholar. He's a hired gun.

Dr. Michael Bowen, a former Naval officer, has a private medical practice in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. He writes the column "The Basics" for www.AmericasVoices.org, a conservative political opinion and educational web site. His columns also appear in other popular Internet sites, including www.Opinionet.com and www.enterstageright.com. e-mail him at MBowen@americasvoices.org. (c) 2001 by Dr. Michael R. Bowen and America's Voices, Inc.

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