History Profs Take Off The Gloves

A team of scholars is investigating a disputed, prize-winning book about the role of guns in the United States.

The dean of Emory College, where author Michael Bellesiles is a professor of history, asked for the panel after the school concluded its own inquiry of "Arming America," according to a statement issued Thursday by the school.

Robert Paul, dean of the Atlanta-based college, "has concluded that further investigation would be warranted by an independent committee of distinguished scholars from outside Emory," the statement said. However, the statement did not specify why the new investigation was necessary or say who was on the committee, which is expected to finish its work by the end of the summer.

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Paul did not immediately respond to messages left by The Associated Press. Bellesiles, on a fellowship for the academic year, also did not immediately return messages.

When Emory first announced its inquiry, in February, Paul said that the school was "addressing allegations of misconduct in research."

Bellesiles spent 10 years working on "Arming America," published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2000. The book challenges the idea that the United States has always been a gun-oriented culture and that well-armed militias were essential to the Revolutionary War.

Relying on numerous sources, Bellesiles writes that only a small percentage of people possessed firearms in colonial times and that militias were mostly ineffective. Only after the Civil War, he contends, did guns become important to the culture.

"Arming America" was praised in both The New York Times and The New York Review of Books and won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history. Many cited it as a devastating statement against America's alleged historical love affair with firearms.

"The way we think about guns and violence in America will never be the same," wrote Michael Zuckerman, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. "Michael Bellesiles is the NRA's worst nightmare."

Gun advocates quickly attacked the book, with National Rifle Association president, actor Charlton Heston, complaining that Bellesiles had "too much time on his hands."

But scholars and critics also became skeptical. Bellesiles has been accused of ideological bias, selective scholarship and misleading statements. Some corrections already have been made in the paperback edition, and Bellesiles' editor at Knopf, Jane Garrett, has said that "other corrections will be made in subsequent printings."

Bellesiles, in published reports, has acknowledged some errors but defends his book as fundamentally sound.

By Hillel Italie