We’ve heard often that guns don’t kill people—people with guns kill people. But think about Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Columbine. None would have happened without each shooter’s access to a gun (or, often, guns). That seems as good a reason as any for more restrictive gun-control laws, if not an outright ban.
But, as a particularly language-conscious gun store owner in McCook, Nebraska, tells Dan Baum in Baum’s new book, Gun Guys (Knopf), “Do you know what the dictionary definition of a weapon is? ‘A device used either offensively or defensively.’ That means against humans. Not all firearms are weapons.”
This complicates the debate a bit. What about all those who don’t use their guns as weapons, those nonhomicidal sportsmen and -women who spend their free time hunting or at the shooting range?
Then there are those who distinguish between “defensiveness” and “vigilance.” To them, possessing a gun is a privilege—a responsibility, even—and their brand of vigilance is necessary to a civil society, even if that gun never becomes a defensive weapon.
Thank goodness we have Dan Baum to guide us through this morass. Baum is a journalist with impeccable blue-state credentials. He grew up in New Jersey, currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, and has written for a variety of left-leaning publications, including Harper‘s, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker, where he became uniquely acquainted with the nature of a society plunged into violence and chaos while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He wears glasses, as he’s fond of reminding his readers, and makes nerdy fashion choices, like pleated pants.
Baum is also a gun owner. He loves guns. He’s loved guns since the age of five, when he ventured out onto the rifle range at Camp Sunapee and discovered that even though he was a small, pudgy bed wetter who sucked at baseball, by God, he could hit that target! (Even in retrospect, Baum doesn’t question the wisdom of supplying a five-year-old with a loaded gun, but hey—it was 1961. The past is another country.) As an adult, Baum began building up his own modest arsenal, mostly with antique, historically significant weapons, and he took up hunting.
If circumstances were different, Baum says, he might have become obsessed with guitars or cameras or some other complicated man-toy that’s fun to handle and not quite as fraught as a firearm. But you get the sense he doesn’t really mean it—the man just likes guns. Even though it makes him part of a misunderstood minority, vilified even by his friends: “‘Ugh. I hate guns’ was the way they usually expressed it. And my friends’ contempt went beyond guns to the people who liked them. They wouldn’t have dreamed of saying ‘nigger’ or ‘fag,’ but they laughed at ‘gun nuts’ or ‘gun loons.’ . . . America seemed to be cleaving along the gun-guy fault. And there I was, straddling it.”
So Baum sets out on a 15,000-mile road trip through the heart of America, from Wisconsin down to Texas, Arizona to Ohio, with a detour to the NRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., with the goal of meeting as many “gun guys” as possible so he can better understand their attachment to their—well, are they weapons? Are they toys? In the course of his travels, Baum visits a lot of gun stores and shows; interviews officials, policy wonks, and, here in Chicago, a reformed self-described thug who did time for murder; goes hunting (both deer and boar); hangs out at shooting ranges; takes a couple gun safety classes; plays a live-action video game where he gets to shoot real bullets; attends the funeral of a kid he met in post-Katrina New Orleans who was gunned down by a romantic rival; and guzzles beer at a German-American fiesta where, instead of bashing a piñata, festivalgoers shoot a wooden eagle to pieces. He ponders why a city like Chicago, which has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws, also has such high rates of violent crime, but he comes to no helpful conclusions. He also acquires a concealed-carry permit and packs his Colt Detective Special wherever he’s allowed. The experience, he writes (several times), makes him feel more vigilant and responsible.
Truth be told, this book could use a lot less Baum. He lays out his own feelings about guns in the introduction (loves ’em, hates the damage they do, hates the way the whole gun-control issue has been politicized) and they don’t change over the course of his journey. He admits that he doesn’t take part in NRA-style gun culture and doesn’t really understand it. And, despite his oft-stated love of guns and disdain for blue-state elitism, he still can’t entirely shed his condescension toward midwesterners. Gun Guys is at its best when Baum just shuts up and lets the guys speak for themselves. (Sarah Palin notwithstanding, most gun enthusiasts are guys. Baum wonders if it might have something to do with the Y chromosome.)
He’s done an admirable job of assembling a wide range of voices that reflect the many experiences it’s possible to have with a gun in America. Some—the Angry White Man—are cliches. But others have rarely been heard, like Aaron Zelman, the Milwaukee-based founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership; or Jeremy Parker, the recreational shooter in Kentucky who uses his iPhone to calculate bullet trajectories; or Rick Ector, the African-American man in Detroit who finds unexpected solace in gun ownership after he gets divorced, loses his job, and is mugged at gunpoint.
Guns aren’t just toys to these guys. They’re intimately tied up with notions of manhood and personal liberty and what sort of society we want to be living in. These ideas are usually overshadowed by the violence guns do. If Baum has accomplished one thing with this book, he’s demonstrated that in the larger debate over gun control, there should be more discussion of the complexity and nuances of Americans’ relationships with their firearms—particularly by those trying to set limits.