Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The author of a controversial book, which claims there was no widespread ownership of firearms by U.S. citizens prior to the Civil War, has been removed from his teaching position at Emory University, the school announced Thursday.
"Professor Michael Bellesiles will be on paid leave from his teaching duties at Emory University during the fall semester," Emory said in a written statement acknowledging that a six-month investigation into allegations of research fraud "is continuing."
Bellesiles has been under fire almost since the first copy of his book "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," rolled off the press.
The main thesis of the work is that, prior to the Civil War, "the majority of American men did not care about guns. They were indifferent to owning guns, and they had no apparent interest in learning how to use them."
"The national passion for gun ownership did not begin in America's frontier days," claimed a May 2, 2001, Emory University press release promoting the book. "Through sophisticated research, Bellesiles has put together probate reports on what people owned in the 18th and early 19th centuries, government surveys of gun ownership, and records of the number of guns produced in America and imported from abroad.
"Contrary to the romantic idea that the frontiersman relied upon his weapon, Bellesiles establishes the fact that up until 1850, fewer than 10 percent of Americans owned guns, and half of those weapons were not functioning," the document claimed.
But Joyce Lee Malcolm, a professor of history at Bentley College and a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program, wrote in a University of Texas Law Review article shortly after the release of the book that "Arming America's" claims don't stand up to scrutiny.
"Few historians have made such extravagant claims for their monographs nor had them accepted so uncritically as has Michael Bellesiles," she wrote. "In virtually every aspect of his argument, Bellesiles' claims are not supported by his sources and are at odds with those he has chosen to ignore or dismiss.
"This is not the occasional, unintentional error of fact or difference in emphasis," Malcolm continued. "He has presented a skewed and distorted selection of the records, misquoted contemporary statements and statutes, provided inaccurate information, and erroneous accounts of the particular probate collections he specifically cites."
The primary evidence Bellesiles cites as "proof" for the lack of firearms comes from more than 11,000 probate inventories from 1765 through 1859. In one such sampling of 186 inventories from Providence, R.I., Bellesiles claimed that only 48 percent mentioned guns.
"If one could imagine these 186 men as a militia company," Bellesiles wrote, "half would be unarmed and a third armed with guns too old for service. And yet they would have been one of the best-armed forces of their time."
James Lindgren, a Northwestern University law professor, examined those same inventories.
"Virtually everything Bellesiles said about these records was false," Lindgren argued.
In fact, not 48 percent, but 62 percent mentioned guns, of which only 9 percent were described as "old," not the 33 percent Bellesiles claimed. Lindgren also looked at rural areas and compared the numbers of guns recorded to the other types of property listed. He found more guns than knives, books, and even Bibles.
Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America, is pleased by the university's action.
"Much of the research by anti-gunners has been very shoddy," he said, noting anti-gun researchers such as James Wright and Gary Kleck who became pro-gun only after completing their research and examining the resulting evidence.
"This is certainly a good first step for the university," Pratt said. "It's been a long time coming."
Emory University remarked that its probe will differ, in one respect, to most internal investigations into allegations of academic misconduct against college professors.
"Professor Bellesiles and the university have agreed that the results of the university's inquiry will be made public when the inquiry is completed," the university's statement said.
Pratt said he is looking forward to that announcement.
"Certainly the university is going to have egg on its face because they've defended him so strongly throughout," Pratt concluded.
Calls to Emory University seeking comment from university officials and Michael Bellesiles on this story were not returned prior to it's filing for publication.
E-mail a news tip to Jeff Johnson.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.