Baum has an agenda. He wants you to listen to the guys
who like guns ó particularly if you are an
NPR-listening, Whole Foods-shopping progressive. Thatís
how you could describe Baum, a former New Yorker staff
writer and lefty down the line ó except for his love
of rifles, revolvers and the rest.
the urban, educated effete liberal Democrat side of my
world Iím hearing all of this disparaging of Ďgun
guys,í how stupid and awful they are," he says,
speaking by phone from his home in Colorado. "These
are conversations that for years Iíve endured as kind
of like a closeted gay man listening to people talking
about Ďfagsí and Ďhomosí ó I would just stay
is bringing his weaponry out of the closet in "Gun
Guys: A Road Trip," which Knopf is publishing March
5. In the book, he travels the country to meet some of
Americaís 70 million to 80 million gun owners, talking
to collectors and hunters, people concerned with
self-defense and those who take pleasure in the skill of
shooting. He gets a permit to carry a concealed weapon
and explains the frisson, part power and part threat, of
passing through daily life secretly armed.
book arrives at an opportune moment. After highly
publicized incidents of gun violence like the killing of
six adults and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in
December, gun control again becomes a topic of heated
camps have driven each other so far apart that we canít
talk about this stuff rationally, because itís
tribal," says Baum.
he tends to lay the blame at the feet of his liberal
cohorts. "The anti-gun tribe thinks it can weaken
the gun tribe by attacking the totem. By banning it, by
making it invisible, by paring it down as much as it
one foot in each camp, Baum sees himself as uniquely
positioned to explain gun-lovers to gun-haters. "I
just want people, when they think about these questions,
to have listened to rational, calm, intelligent voices
that they might not otherwise have encountered," he
says. It is an eclectic lineup: a Texas pig hunter, a
wealthy collector, a Hollywood gun prop house and the
man who founded Jews for the Preservation of Firearms
book about New Orleans after Katrina, "Nine
Lives," also wove together the voices of the people
he interviewed; he draws out his subjects, despite his
own strong opinions. While his interviewees in "Gun
Guys" provide an interesting narrative, the most
enlightening element of the book may be its clear
explanation of some of the basics of contemporary gun
gun-control advocates suggest banning assault rifles;
Baum points out that the most popular gun in America
today is the Bushmaster AR-15: Itís modular, highly
customizable, lightweight and easy to shoot well.
the only gun anybody wants," Baum says. And what
does the "AR" in AR-15 stand for? Oh, yeah:
from being some kind of bizarre anomaly of the gun
business, it is the absolute heart of the gun business:
the most popular gun and the most profitable gun,"
Baum says. "So if youíre wondering why even
Barack Obama has backed off from the assault-rifle ban,
the question "Who needs an assault rifle?"
seems entirely rational to his liberal friends, to most
American gun owners it sounds like a direct attack. For
Angelenos, the equivalent might be "Who needs a
car?" If technically we donít need one, the
question seems like a threat to our core way of living.
guys are not like camera buffs; theyíre not like fly
fishermen, not like car buffs. Itís deep, itís
really deep," he explains. "I was really
trying to figure out why these things move us, why they
are so important to us."
own love affair with guns began at age 5; at summer camp
he discovered he had a natural aptitude for target
shooting. He was attracted to the physicality of guns
and charmed by the James Bond mythology he associated
in his liberal suburb, the late Ď60s brought a schism
between the weapons and his world. "I was against
the (Vietnam) war too, and aspired to the hippie
aesthetic as much as any other sixth-grader," he
writes. "But that didnít keep me from liking
guns. To me, they were separate."
separation between guns and violence is an essential
part of Baumís world view. As he details the way guns
make him feel, one thing becomes clear: He finds power
in carrying but not using a weapon. "Out on the
street, I felt vigilant, aloof from petty
animosities," he writes. He eschews verbal
engagement when secretly armed ó and he says itís
not just him.
guys derive a tremendous amount of self-esteem from
being able to live alongside these incredibly dangerous
things without anybody getting hurt," he says.
imagines the thought process this way: "I can live
with guns, I can travel around with guns, I can take
them to the range and shoot guns, I can teach children
to shoot guns, I can hunt with guns, I can carry a gun,
and nobody gets hurt. Because I am competent and careful
and enough of a sheepdog to manage this incredibly
juxtaposition of the lethal potential of guns with the
feeling of power they impart is apparent in the tragic
story of Brandon Franklin, a promising young man Baum
had met in New Orleans while working on "Nine
Lives."A few years later, when Baum was working on
this gun book, Franklin was murdered during a dispute
with his ex-girlfriendís new boyfriend. Brandon had
not been carrying a gun; the other man had.
unknowable that really tortured me," Baum writes,
"was this: if Brandon had been formally inducted
into the sheepdog cadre and had had a legal gun
concealed on his person. ... Might the gun have saved
his life without ever being drawn?"
inverse, of course, is the other side of the debate:
Wouldnít his life have been saved if his murderer hadnít
carried one at all?