Sunday, Dec. 9, 2001 3:32 a.m. EST

Award-Winning Anti-gun Book an Apparent Fraud

An award-winning book that was hailed by gun control advocates when it was released last year was based on distorted interpretations of historical records and cited evidence that, in some cases, may have been completely fabricated, the New York Times reported Saturday.

Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles, whose book "Arming America: The Origins of the National Gun Culture" caused a sensation with Second Amendment foes last year with its claims that gun ownership in the U.S. was "an invented tradition," may have perpetrated what the paper described as "one of the worst academic scandals in years."

Scholars who have examined Professor Bellesiles' data could not substantiate his claim that 11,000-plus probate records from 40 counties in colonial America showed that fewer than 7 percent actually owned working guns.

Academics trying to corroborate "Arming America's" sensational findings were stunned by "an astonishing number of serious errors," the Times said, "almost all of them intended to support [Bellesiles'] thesis."

"In some cases his numbers were off by a factor of two or three or more," said Randolph Roth, a history professor at Ohio State University.

"The number and scope of the errors in Bellesiles' work are extraordinary," Roth told the Times, saying they include misinterpretation of militia returns, literary documents and data from many other sources.

Professor Bellesiles has offered a number of excuses for why his data fails to check out. For example, he says most of his research records have been destroyed in a flood.

Several of his other excuses seem even less probable.

Bellesiles told one critic that he'd managed to obtain detailed probate records from the 1850s from the San Francisco Superior Court. But the courthouse said all probate data from that decade had been destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906.

"[The San Francisco records] were not available in two other Bay area libraries, either," the Times said. "Mr. Bellesiles now says he must have done the research somewhere else and cannot remember where."

"Arming America" won Columbia University's prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy. Before the book's rampant errors were discovered, legal scholars had said Bellesiles' work could impact on several court challenges to Second Amendment protections.