Probate inventories, though perhaps the best prevailing source for determining ownership patterns in early America, are incomplete and fallible. In this Article, the authors suggest that inferences about who owned guns can be improved by using multivariate techniques and control variables of other common objects. To determine gun ownership from probate inventories, the authors examine three databases in detail-Alice Hanson Jones's national sample of 919 inventories (1774), 149 inventories from Providence, Rhode Island (1679-1726), and Gunston Hall Plantation's sample of 325 inventories from Maryland and Virginia (1740-1810). Also discussed are a sample of 59 probate inventories from Essex County, Massachusetts (1636-1650), Gloria L. Main's study of 604 Maryland estates (1657-1719), Anna Hawley's study of 221 Surry County, Virginia estates (1690-1715), a sample of 289 male inventories from Vermont (1773-1790), and Judith A. McGaw's study of 250 estates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (1714-1789). Guns are found in 50-73% of the male estates in each of the eight databases and in 6-38% of the female estates in each of the first four databases. Gun ownership is particularly high compared to other common items. For example, in 813 itemized male inventories from the 1774 Jones national database, guns are listed in 54% of estates, compared to only 30% of estates listing any cash, 14% listing swords or edged weapons, 25% listing Bibles, 62% listing any book, and 79% listing any clothes. Using hierarchical loglinear modeling, the authors show that guns are more common in early American inventories where the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class - or where the inventories were more detailed. The picture of gun ownership that emerges from these analyses substantially contradicts the assertions of Michael Bellesiles in Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Arming America). Contrary to Arming America's claims about probate inventories in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America, there were high numbers of guns, guns were much more common than swords or other edged weapons, women in 1774 owned guns at rates (18%) higher than Bellesiles claimed men did in 1765-1790 (14.7%), and 87-91% of gun-owning estates listed at least one gun that was not old or broken. The authors replicated portions of Bellesiles's published study in which he both counted guns in probate inventories and cited sources containing inventories. They conclude that Bellesiles appears to have substantially misrecorded the seventeenth and eighteenth century probate data he presents. For the Providence probate data (1679-1726), Bellesiles has misclassified over 60% of the inventories he examined. He repeatedly counted women as men, counted about a hundred wills that never existed, and claimed that the inventories evaluated more than half of the guns as old or broken when fewer than 10% were so listed. Nationally, for the 1765-1790 period, the average percentage of estates listing guns that Bellesiles reports (14.7%) is not mathematically possible, given the regional averages he reports and known minimum sample sizes. Last, an archive of probate inventories from San Francisco in which Bellesiles claims to have counted guns apparently does not exist. By all accounts, the entire archive before 1860 was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. Neither part of his study of seventeenth and eighteenth-century probate data is replicable, nor is his study of probate data from the 1840s and 1850s.
Date of this Version
James T. Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather, "Counting Guns in Early America" (March 2005). Public Law and Legal Theory Papers. Working Paper 2.