Dan Baum’s new book "Gun Guys" is essential reading for anyone trying to navigate the emotional terrain of today’s gun debate.
Baum, a former New Yorker writer, is one of those increasingly rare birds in the polarized gun debate: a self-described "tax-and-spend Democrat" who just plain loves guns.
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At odds with his political party and his colleagues, but also out of touch with the gun crowd they find so terrifying, Baum embarked on a 15,000-mile road trip through America to discover the roots of our country’s peculiar fascination with firearms.
His travels took him from machine-gun shoots to pig hunts in Texas to the Hollywood armories that provide the boom sticks for summer blockbusters.
Along the way, he talked with almost every cross-section of the gun community. One chapter consists of an interview with a black Detroit man who started carrying a concealed pistol after being mugged at gunpoint. Another focuses on a husband and wife who compete in "run-and-gun" shooting competitions.
He also chatted with think-tank scholars—those armchair defenders of the Second Amendment—and the founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (really). He even got a concealed carry permit so he could pack heat himself.
"I was setting off to discover the attraction," Baum said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "Why do we like these things so much? I knew they were mechanically beautiful. And I knew they were historically interesting, fun to shoot, and useful. I knew all that. What I didn't know was how much self-esteem gun guys get from being gun guys."
The bulk of gun owners and enthusiasts these days, and the bulk of Baum's subjects, are increasingly older white men without college degrees or, as they’re known on the Internet gun forums, OFWGs. Old fat white guys.
"One of the things that makes them feel really good about themselves is they can use guns effectively and safely," Baum said.
Baum said the other lesson he learned on the road is that, for many gun guys, there was also a "genuinely patriotic element."
"Part of what makes the United States unique is the amount of trust it puts in ordinary people to speak, write, pray, assemble—to know about our government," Baum said. "And part of that is the trust we put in people to use guns."
Baum travels to a desert machine-gun shoot where collectors of rare and inordinately expensive fully automatic machine guns unload thousands of rounds at empty oil drums and abandoned cars. No government official looks over their shoulders or demands a permit.
"These guys own these unbelievably destructive weapons," Baum said. "It's amazing. Europeans think it’s amazing in a horrible way, but its part of what makes the United States unique. You can argue it’s misplaced, but the fact is we are trusted. Our system depends on that trust."
Baum is a journalist first and a writer of no small skill. His literary flourishes make the book a surprisingly light read, even when the subject matter turns dark.
His description of his first experience with a rifle, the moment when he was forever seduced, will strike a nostalgic chord in anyone who’s also fallen under the spell. He describes the heft of the rifle, the feel of the stock against the shoulder, the pleasure of applying one’s complete will towards a distant target.
It is also a passage that will leave a significant portion of readers cold. Many people don’t like guns, period, which is why we end up talking past each other on the issue.
I asked Baum what he thought about the recent push for gun legislation on Capitol Hill. "They basically pitted the NRA against Newtown parents," he said. "The whole thing was entirely emotional."
"I think the people who want to ban guns need to look at themselves and say why don't they want to do that?" Baum continued. "It's not because they want to make us safer. It's because they don't like guns, and they don’t like gun people. It's a totally legitimate feeling to have but I don't think we should be basing policy on it."
But, while Baum has little use for fear-based gun policy, he has just as little use for the National Rifle Association and its tactics.
"The gun-rights movement was equally mired in the language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment, and desire for conquest—and poorly serving its constituents," Baum writes in Gun Guys. "In its incessant whining about the gun grabbers and the liberals, in its obsessive nurturing of inchoate anger, and in its all-or-nothing worldview, the NRA and the rest of the organized gun rights movement was likewise punching below its weight."
Given the current state of debate over gun rights, one would think the subject would be ripe for journalistic consideration. But one would be underestimating the power of gun control media orthodoxy.
For example, Baum originally wanted to turn the machine-gun-shoot chapter into an article for Men’s Journal, but editors rejected it on the grounds that it wasn’t anti-gun enough for liberal owner Jann Wenner (also the owner of Rolling Stone).
"I'm not one of these people who go on about liberal media, but there's one expected narrative: Guns are bad, assault weapons are bad, and no one needs one," Baum said. "It's tough to break through that."
"What happens is that the gun culture, which is about 40 percent of America, is marginalized," Baum continued. "You don't read about it. It's hidden. It's part of what anti-gun people want."
Baum said he’s had other articles spiked for not being sufficiently anti-gun. As if to underscore the point, Baum’s last three books all received reviews in the New York Times Sunday edition.
No review thus far for "Gun Guys."