Gun Guys: A Road Trip by Dan Baum
I was moving from California to Texas. As part of my immersion, I thought I’d listen to a book about gun culture during my three-day drive. I will say upfront that I am not a fan of guns. I understand that the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment to mean that civilians can own guns with an idiotic amount of killing power. But I also like to consider the views of rational, well-informed and passionate people with whom I disagree. Unfortunately, with a topic like guns, those voices are usually heavy on the passion, sometimes well-informed but rarely rational. This goes for both sides of the debate. The people most energized to speak out tend to be the people at the far ends of the bell curve. And while two of them going at it on cable news is entertaining (some would say), the result is that we rarely find any middle ground. It’s rare that it’s even sincerely sought. Had this book been written by an anti-gun lefty or a pro-gun right-winger, I would have passed. What attracted me to Gun Guys was that Dan Baum’s views are incongruent with his political identity: he’s a liberal Democrat who lives in Boulder, but happens to really like guns.
In this book, he travels the country and dives into the gun culture of America. Gun shows, gun shops, hunting clubs, antique gun collectors, thrill-seeking machine gun shooters, even someone in charge of guns on Hollywood movie sets. A women’s “run-and-gun” champ (it’s a sport). A concealed-carry instructor in Detroit. The head of a group called Jews For the Preservation of Firearm Ownership. His goal is to really understand gun culture, to understand why other people are passionate about guns. He attempts to engage in conversations with all of them and finds them to be a varied lot (not surprising, since roughly one in three adults in the U.S. is a gun owner).
Although Baum is a gun-lover, he takes it one step further by getting licensed for concealed carry. He wants to see how a gun under his shirt affects his psyche. Beyond a little physical discomfort, he describes how it changes the way he processes his environment. Maintaining “Condition Yellow,” is what the gun training courses call it; “Hyper-vigilant” is how I might describe it—always on the lookout for potential threats. Baum grapples with the notion that anyone carrying a gun around on their hip holds, at some level, a fantasy of taking out a bad guy in a gun fight. We’re conditioned to be this way, by years of cartoons and video games and action figures and shooting friends with anything from a squirt gun to a whiffle bat. As a former boy, I can conservatively estimate that guns occupy about 65% of our fantasy lives, only to be replaced by boobs (for most of us) when we reach puberty. So is condition yellow a good or bad thing? It’s hard to say.
Baum covers many of the issues related to guns, including the history, the politics, the Constitutional arguments, the economics, the specifics of the AR-15. That’s a particularly interesting section, as the AR-15 is one of the most popular, most vilified yet least understood gun on the market. It’s not an automatic (which would require it to continually fire whenever the trigger is squeezed). It’s technically not an assault weapon. It’s even hard to say physically what an AR-15 is. One of its appeals is that it’s a modular weapon. The only truly common part of the AR-15 is something called the lower receiver. The rest of the weapon—the stock, the grip, the sight, even the caliber of the bullets—can be modified. It’s an adult “Lego set.” Which makes it difficult to even define, let along legislate or regulate.
In his conversations with the people he encounters, Baum grows frustrated with the stereotypical red-faced, red-state gun owners. The people with the racist Obama bumper stickers, who launch into “come and take it” rants whenever they catch a whiff of a gun law. To them, any restriction is an encroachment on the Second Amendment and leads immediately to “Obama wants to take all our guns away.” There is no room for discussion. It is arguing with a religious zealot.
On the other side, Baum finds the pro-gun-control politicians to be incompetently ignorant. They use gun control as a campaign tool. They preach intolerance for a machine they have little understanding of, much less appreciation for. He points to Diane Feinstein, a hardcore gun-control advocate, who sometimes doesn’t even use the correct terminology for the guns. Importantly, they are as at fault for degrading the conversation around gun control because they regularly attack responsible gun owners, or make it seem like responsible gun owners are to blame when a mass shooting happens. Their message, implicit or explicit, is, “We don’t trust you. You aren’t responsible enough to have that kind of gun. Or that kind of ammo clip.”
What Baum is searching for with Gun Guys is genuine empathy—something sorely lacking from our modern political discourse. To me, this goes beyond the gun debate. The gun debate is symptomatic of a larger problem: two sides with religiously fundamental positions, dug in and unwilling not just to compromise, but to even engage in true conversation. They might “debate,” but we don’t need a debate. A debate is something you try to win. What we need is a conversation, a genuine search for deeper understanding and appreciation. A conversation is what Baum is looking for here.
As he says in an interview with Mother Jones:
When something like Sandy Hook or Aurora happens, the knee-jerk reaction on the left is ban the guns! When you do that, you also alienate the very people who might help us reduce gun violence. They’re the people who know guns, who know how they function, who know how to train people to be around them. If we didn’t have this tribal instinct to vilify the other, we could be doing so much more good.
And who benefits from this tribalism? Who benefits when gun owners feel threatened and “gun up?” Like most of our political issues, behind the scenes someone is making a fortune. In this case, it’s the gun manufacturers. One of the biggest shifts that can happen with this issue is to recognize that the gun debate always benefits the gun industry. The NRA, once an organization for the expressed purpose of promoting gun safety, is now just a PR group for the gun industry. They advocate for making gun manufacturers rich. Having a rationally untenable position is fine as long as it keeps the debate burning hot. The biggest boon to gun sales is an angry, reactionary left. And every time a mass shooting happens, gun manufacturers hear the cha-ching of the cash register.
So how has my thinking evolved after Gun Guys? I have a greater understanding that “gun culture” doesn’t apply to a homogenous group. Sure, there are the Obama-hating, red-faced angry white dudes most associated with the NRA. But there are a lot of other sub-groups and varied motivations for owning guns—hunting and self-defense, sure, but also those who just enjoy the sport of shooting. Or the love of tinkering with small, powerful machines. Or have the collector mindset. I can empathize with a lot of those passions. For my birthday years ago, I half-jokingly suggested we go to a range and fire guns. I’d never shot anything other than a B.B. gun as a kid. It was a blast. I can see why people love it.
But we can’t have mentally unstable people shooting up night clubs with AR-15s. And as video after video shows, many police are unprepared to deal with gun laws as they exist (something both open-carry advocates and civil-rights advocates agree on). It’s hard to blame cops for this—a permitted “good guy” strolling down the street with an AR-15 over his shoulder looks remarkably similar to a “bad guy” doing the same. And as we saw in Dallas, if bullets start to fly in a crowd, it complicates the situation to have civilians running around with guns, permitted or not. Finally, it would obviously benefit everyone (save gun makers) for mass shootings to not be commonplace in our news. Better gun safety is something both sides should (and the majority of Americans do) agree on. The NRA of 40 years ago could broker that conversation, but it’s not going to happen with today’s cash-corrupted, politicized organization.
So who will it be? In my mind, Gun Guys is a good example that the discussion doesn’t need to break down along the tired left/right divide. Dan Baum, by the mere circumstance of his progressive politics and love of guns, is uniquely qualified to lead this kind of conversation. Although “sensible” is not an exciting word, in this conversation it is unique. Baum’s common sense coupled with his witty writing style (think Bill Bryson or Jon Ronson) makes Gun Guys an enjoyable, informative and sensible read on a white-hot topic.