Gun guys," in Dan Baum's book of the same name, are people who are largely misunderstood, reduced in politics and media shorthand to a set of stereotypes that is both reductive and untrue. Whether you think of them as "gun nuts" or "defenders of liberty," Baum says, you're wrong. At their heart, the one thing gun guys have in common is that they like to collect, clean, talk about and shoot guns — and that, he argues, is a morally neutral enthusiasm. And he should know, because Dan Baum has been a gun guy from a very young age.
Baum is also an unabashed liberal, albeit a guilt-ridden one, calling his fondness for guns "an enthusiasm that has made me feel slightly ashamed." After a back-and-forth with a pro-gun blogger, he describes his feelings about concealed carry: "If I don't carry the gun, I'm turning my back not only on my own safety but on my duty to participate in the security of my community, and if I do carry the gun, I'm betraying my commitment to Social Security, Medicare, single-payer health care and public education."
Heavy is the belt on which hangs the holster, and nowhere more so than in New Orleans, where Baum lived after Hurricane Katrina, composing dispatches for The New Yorker and writing Nine Lives, one of the best of the many post-Katrina books. But besides the sherbet shirts and the Meyer straw hats he favored, Baum also wore a .38 Colt when he left his house in New Orleans, and that too gave him dis-ease. He was friendly with Brandon Franklin, the young saxophonist who was shot to death in the spring of 2010 in, as Baum puts it, "one of those unspeakably stupid incidents that show up in FBI statistics as 'other.'" At Franklin's funeral, he remembers, "As I trudged along behind the hearse, with Brandon's band blaring and people dancing beneath parasols to celebrate a life cut short by a handgun, it was a little awkward to have a .38 Colt secretly digging into my sweaty back."
There are more of those mullings in Gun Guys than there are answers (even speculative ones) for America's gun-homicide problem. But the strength of Baum's book is that he doesn't drink from the tap of conventional wisdom. Instead of exploring Hollywood's fascination with guns by interviewing lobbyists or directors, he goes to Stembridge Gun Rentals, a "temple of firearm mythology" that provides guns (real and rubber) to the film industry. Instead of talking to the usual sociologists about guns among urban African-Americans, he visits with Rick Ector, a middle-class Detroit man who says, "The anti-gun people, they've been brainwashed. For me, getting a gun was like being born again." (Ector, a firearms instructor, is candid about the fact he's one of the few black "gun guys" in his circle.) And Baum makes a great case when he shows that those in favor of "banning assault rifles" often have no idea what they're talking about, nor what an assault rifle is and isn't.
Baum is aware that, in many liberal circles, confessing an appreciation of and fascination for guns is inexplicable: firearms result in the deaths of more than 10,000 Americans per year. Yes, he says, but points out that's hardly the fault of good gun guys; they're the ones trained in firearms, who store them correctly and use trigger locks and don't reach for an AR-15 every time someone pisses them off. Likewise, many gun guys will find Baum's politics inexplicable; isn't President Barack Obama's administration going to use its second term to "take away America's guns"?
Well, no, it's not, Baum argues — and equally persuasively. Though gun laws came to the forefront after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, the proposals being mentioned now have nothing to do with confiscating guns, but were old ideas like federal background checks and banning assault weapons.
As for those who think gun control is a slippery slope, Baum points out It wasn't George W. Bush who passed legislation allowing concealed carry of weapons in national parks; it was Obama.
Neither of these arguments is likely to sway either gun guys or anti-gun guys. And I came away unconvinced that the answer, as Baum suggests, is for the National Rifle Association and "the community of responsible gun owners" to "make irresponsible behavior socially unacceptable, just as it had become unthinkable among most Americans to smoke inside another person's house, say words like 'nigger' or make lascivious comments about underage girls." Baum posits scenarios where responsible gun buyers refuse to patronize gun shops that don't sell electronic safes along with each handgun, or gun aficionados don't go shooting with their buddies who leave loaded guns around the house ("Sorry, dude. I'm not shooting with you until you clean up your act"). These proscriptions seem about as real-world workable as Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" campaign was during the crack wars of the 1980s.
Then again, if answers were as easy to come by as guns, we already would have made some headway in cutting down on gun-related deaths, rather than coming up with knee-jerk proposals every time there's an assassination attempt or school shooting. (Let's arm teachers!) "As a nation, we haven't even started trying to figure out why ours is so much more violent than other countries, why we seem to produce more than our share of alienated, homicidal crazies," Baum says.
Gun Guys doesn't get to the bottom of that, or even scratch the surface, but it's not trying to; instead, it's a look at, and a listen to, the people whose voices are often ignored in the shouting matches that pass for firearms discourse in America.