Fire at Will

“When the question period came, he started with the first of the four large men. ‘You say the probate records show very few guns, and argue that this proves people in early America didn’t have guns. But when my father died, there was nothing in his will about his guns… Are probate records really a good source of evidence on gun ownership?’

“Bellesiles answered, ‘I’m sure you’re right about your father’s will, but wills in the eighteenth century were different. People didn’t own very many things compared to today, and their wills contained a detailed list of everything they had, down to the knives and forks. There are other problems with probate records–they are biased in many ways. But I’m confident that if an eighteenth-century man owned a gun, it would be in his will. Remember that we’re talking here about wills in the 1700s.’

“He called on the second large man. ‘I want to ask about your use of probate records,’ he said. ‘You say probate records showed few guns, but my father owned several guns that did not appear in his will when he died….’

“Bellesiles paused and looked around the room, where students glanced at each other with stunned disbelief: So this is what it’s like when you’re the target of a campaign to destroy your work.” —Fire at WillThe Nation)