Conversation with Dan Baum


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Baum answered Gambit's questions via email from his home in Boulder, Colo.

gambit: What are the biggest misconceptions that non-"gun guys" have about gun guys — and vice versa?

BAUM: One big surprise for me about gun guys was how much of a self-esteem booster a firearm can be. To be able to manage and use effectively something as dangerous as a firearm, without anybody getting hurt, takes a combination of skill and courage of which gun guys are understandably proud. Similarly, the freedom to own guns bespeaks a relationship between the government and the people in this country — a unique level of trust our system of government places in the people — and many gun guys are proud, essentially, to be participating in American history simply by keeping and bearing arms.

  On the other side, gun guys often characterize those who would control guns more closely as "enemies of freedom," or somehow un-American, which is truly unfair. It's understandable, especially after something like Sandy Hook, to want to "do something."

gambit:You make your liberal politics clear in Gun Guys, and yet you offer a vigorous defense of the right to keep arms. The Los Angeles Times seemed to think you were some sort of reactionary, while you mention in the book that "gun guys" held you in some suspicion. What sorts of reactions have you gotten to this book?

BAUM: The L.A. Times got me wrong, and it was pretty obvious that the reporter had her own agenda. That's part of the problem with writing about guns; both sides have a rigid orthodoxy. Gun-rights and gun-control advocates can equally be like the Taliban: Agree with them on absolutely everything or you're a friend of Satan. For the anti-gun folks, the problem with my book is that I take gun guys seriously and listen to them with respect. For the gun guys, the problem with the book is that I'm not a Second Amendment absolutist. Between the two, this book could go out of print on page 11.

gambit:The vast majority of "gun guys" in the book fall on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Are there no significant groups of liberal-leaning gun owners?

BAUM: If there's a group of declared liberal gun owners, I haven't found it. I've met many politically liberal Americans who also like guns, but they don't seem to organize as such. And they're frankly in the minority. A fondness for guns appears on the same chromosome as political conservatism for a lot of complicated reasons that I explore in the book. But there are other mutants out there besides me.

gambit:Trying to have a reasonable discussion about guns seems nearly impossible in our politically polarized country. How would you suggest "gun guys" and non-gun guys begin that conversation?

BAUM: Gun guys need to accept that merely banging one's spoon on one's high chair about the Second Amendment isn't enough; they, who know guns better than anyone, need to get in the game and propose ways to keep us all safer around the country's 300 million privately owned guns. (Keeping their guns under lock and key would be the most important first step.) And those who would ban or restrict guns need to stop characterizing "gun culture" as a, or the, problem. The nation's 100 million gun owners hear that and say, "Wait a minute, that's me you're talking about, and my guns don't hurt anybody." Both sides, in other words, need to treat each other with respect, stop the name calling, and lower their voices.

gambit:There's a great distrust of President Barack Obama's administration among gun owners. Do you think that's justified?

BAUM: I lost a $100 bet recently that neither President Obama nor the Democrats would make a serious run at gun control in the second term. I didn't predict Sandy Hook. I'm a big Obama/Biden fan, but I think both have made serious mistakes in the way they've talked about the issue and in the policy changes they propose. I think my party is going to pay a big price for that, and get very little in return. Beyond the tactical damage this has done the Democrats, though, a lot of the rhetoric and the proposed laws have been tone-deaf, disrespectful, and plain dumb — and doesn't do the country any good no matter which side you're on.

gambit:OK, Dan, you're king of America for a day. What federal gun laws make sense to you — if any?

BAUM: Because those who get checked out and trained to carry a legal concealed weapon commit murder at one-quarter the rate of the general population, we can stop worrying about them and feel comfortable with widespread concealed carry. But I would mandate much more extensive training. Take it from someone who's done it; packing without good training is a bad idea. Training is not an infringement of Second Amendment rights, it's an enhancement of Second Amendment rights; a well-trained citizen is more effective in a crisis.

  I also support universal background checks for all gun purchases, both private and in gun stores, but with a difference: Instead of requiring private buyers and sellers to find a gun store and pay for a background check — which most won't do — I'd put the FBI background-check system on the Internet where anybody can access it. The seller would have to run the check, and if it comes back clean, keep a printout of the report in a file for 10 years. Gun guys hate this idea, but inconvenience is not infringement.

gambit:For much of the book — and much of your stay in New Orleans — you carried a concealed weapon. Do you still do so on a regular basis? Why or why not?

BAUM: I don't. I found that I could never take my mind off the gun and that the distraction, and the awesome responsibility, was exhausting. Also, I live in a very safe place; the gun isn't necessary. Carrying in New Orleans was always complicated — comforting, because of the randomness of the crime, but also guilt-inducing, because I felt I was participating in one of the city's worst pathologies.

gambit:In the book, you make it clear your wife and collaborator, Margaret, is definitely not a "gun guy." Has that changed at all during the writing of this book?

BAUM: Alas, no. Margaret still hunts with me, but that's more about the outdoors than about the gun. She remains pretty committed to the conventional liberal position that guns are bad and should be banned if possible, or at least more tightly controlled. You cannot imagine how sick of talking about it we both are.

gambit:Louisiana State Rep. Barbara Norton plans to introduce legislation this year that would require Louisiana gun owners to keep firearms in a locked container or equipped with a safety lock. You think this is a good idea?

BAUM: Yes. Most of the bad stuff that happens with guns in the U.S. happens with guns that some law-abiding gun guy left lying around. Kids find them; depressed teenagers find them; burglars find them and sell them to crooks. Gun guys say a locked-up gun is useless in an emergency, but that's not true. I keep mine in an electronic safe the size of a toaster that pops open instantly when I punch in a three-button code. Gun guys are right to object to silly laws written by people who don't understand guns, but until they get serious about locking up their guns, they can expect laws like this one.

gambit:New Orleans has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the U.S., and the majority of those murders are committed with firearms. Could gun laws lessen the murder rate here, or is the solution different?

BAUM: It always seems to me the worst kind of avoidance to look at the lives young black men live in places like New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles or the Bronx, and say, for example, that the solution is to reduce the number of bullets they can have in their magazine. We often pass gun laws — and drug laws, by the way — to make ourselves feel good about "doing something," but often what we're doing is avoiding talking about issues that are more important, but much more painful to discuss.


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