Gun Guys

I've fired a gun on just one occasion, in college, skeet shooting with my roommate and my then-girlfriend. New Hampshire supplied the kaleidoscopic fall foliage; my roommate, clad all in Barbour, supplied the shotgun and expertise; my girlfriend supplied the imperative not to embarrass myself. 

 

I raised the Benelli over-and-under, squinted, introduced a clay to its Maker. And it'd only taken me a dozen shells! My roommate offered to make an adjustment to the gun. I let him fiddle with it and squeezed the trigger again. My shoulder rocked backward with the full force of -- expectation. That is to say, I flinched. 

 

He'd switched on the safety. "I knew it." He grinned. "You're gun-shy." 

 

Incurable, he said. (I couldn't help thinking of Jake Barnes.) My then-girlfriend later became his now-wife. Still, I bore no grudge against the Great Equalizer, and late last year I started to contemplate a hunting permit. Dan Baum's Gun Guys: A Road Trip came to my attention. It seemed as good a way as any to learn about what is called, derisively, America's "gun culture." Baum's book is less about the guns themselves than about the people who love them -- the human element all but missing from a debate undermined by mutual caricature and hostility.

 

I say "all but missing" because just days after I began reading, Adam Lanza committed the crime so ghastly that it was soon known the world over by the metonym "Newtown." For many, victims like Lanza's are the only human element worth knowing about. As for the fact that Lanza is an outlier, that he represents a negligible sliver of gun users, many would say, "So?" When it comes to their children's safety and their society's security, they're happy to let the exception dictate the rule. For others, the debate is a proxy for a culture war that is eroding Americans' curiosity, empathy, and trust. 

 

Baum, well aware of this trust deficit, presents himself as a bridge between the "gun guys" and polite society. After describing his "personal Big Bang," the summer camp rifle range triumph that turned him into a "gun guy," Baum reassures us that by voting age, he'd "begun to perceive the gun lover in me as some kind of malevolent twin." A New Jersey Jewish Democrat, he holds liberal views on everything but guns. It's a desire either to exorcise or to make peace with his "malevolent twin" that sends Baum on his tour of gun-toting America.

 

This setup may sound condescending, with its suggestion that only a liberal could really be honest or reflective about a passion for firearms. Pro-gun readers may be dismayed that the first subject Baum interviews, at a private range near Denver, does little to contradict the stereotypes. He's underemployed, he lives with Mom and Dad, and he spends every penny tricking out his AR-15, the same type of rifle Lanza used. "It was Call of Duty 4," Baum reports, that piqued the man's interest in the weapon; he tells Baum, further embarrassing himself, about accidentally firing a nine-millimeter pistol through his ceiling.  

 

But Baum doesn't force this portrait to serve a rhetorical purpose; he lets it speak for itself. It answers, for instance, a perennial (and often rhetorical) question of the anti-gun set: What does anyone need a gun like that for? The answer is almost always: target shooting. This use is, in fact, so much more common than hunting that gun activists even have a slang term for hunters: Fudds. For other enthusiasts, it is largely the mechanical complexity that captivates. The young man, more nerd than nut, tells Baum, "I really like the engineering -- the springs, the detents, the catches. I sometimes think, Hmm, this piece hangs a bit, or This roller pin wobbles."

 

Baum's other subjects represent a more diverse and intriguing cross-section of America's gun guys. In Wikieup, Arizona, he mingles with collectors of historic machine guns. A trip to Glendale, California, occasions an audience with Syd Stembridge, current proprietor of the legendary Hollywood rental armory Stembridge Gun Rentals. (This chapter is loaded with great trivia, from the cinematic to the macabre: "People don't fly backwards when hit with bullets," Syd offers. "You crumple up around the wound.") Things get weird for Baum at a gun show in Grand Island, Nebraska, where he learns just how deep anti-government and anti-UN paranoia run -- underground, in fact, with some conventioneers purporting to bury spare rifles in waterproof PVC piping.  

 

Still, most of the people Baum meets seem passionate, not crazy. They are adrenaline-addicted sportswomen like Marcey Parker, who competes with submachine guns; crime victims-turned-activists like Detroit's Rick Ector, whose hope is to make legal gun ownership appealing to his fellow African Americans, and self-defense advocates like Aaron Zelman, the founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. Baum attends a traditional German Schützenfest in Cincinnati, "three days of wursts, beer, oompah bands, and stylized target shooting that harked back 150 years or more." Elsewhere, he hunts deer and feral hogs. 

 

Tradition is a constant refrain. Even that seemingly maladjusted AR-15-lover in the first chapter muses, "[F]irearms are something you can hand down for generations, right?" Baum seems to agree. He's an evangelist for responsible gun ownership. Experimenting with both open and concealed carry, he decides that being armed and trained fosters a combination of sheepdog vigilance and scrupulous self-control. Why not hand down traits like those for generations?

 

Baum's thorough attention to studies and statistics will rankle some on both sides of the debate. Gun owners passionate about self-defense tell Baum repeatedly that crime is "out of control," but Baum knows that crime has dropped at a startling rate over the past decade. By that same token, he knows that there is no epidemic of "assault-rifle" violence; statistics show that rifles of any kind were never involved in more than 3 percent of homicides between 1993 and 2004. Waiting periods for firearms purchases, per the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, have caused a "statistically significant reduction only in suicide among people over age fifty-five." Gun registration hasn't been much of a help to law enforcement: people tend not to commit crimes with registered weapons.

 

Baum wants his "gun guys" to be safer, and to try to understand and respect their gun-fearing fellow Americans. In a postscript written after Newtown but prior to publication, he bemoans calls for new anti-gun legislation --  not because they will inconvenience gun lovers but because of what he terms opportunity cost. "If we did the instinctive thing," he wrote, "and made gun owners the enemy, we couldn't do the smart thing and make them allies in the struggle against gun violence." Greater respect for gun lovers might coax from them a greater willingness to adopt commonsense measures.

 

Baum is a fine writer, a bold advocate for gun rights and responsible firearms use, and a keen observer of people. His portraits of extraordinary Americans, gun guys and gun haters alike, are what make his book such an illuminating read. But he also comes off as something of a naïf. He takes for granted that the antipathy between "gun guys" and their opponents is genuinely about firearms. Of one interviewee, he writes, "[T]o Herpin, the pro-gun-control position felt like an attack on his tastes, on who he was as a person. Maybe he was wrong, but that was how he heard it." Don't overthink it. He wasn't wrong.

 

It cuts both ways, of course. The people who rail against "gun nuts" surely know that legal gun owners are responsible for an insignificant portion of all crime. And the AR-15 lovers who claim to fear Obama and the UN probably aren't really stashing away thousand-dollar rifles in their backyards, at least not in great numbers. Baum notes that TEOTWAWKI, an acronym meaning "The End of the World as We Know It," sounds "like an upstate New York summer camp." Yes, and that hints at something important: both sides are, to a degree, playacting. An unpleasant fact of life in a country where the discourse has soured is that people will make outrageous claims about their opponents and even about themselves, all in the name of antagonism and provocation.

 

Baum's book has the potential to remind readers how fruitless that antagonism is, to show them that if we're honest about all aspects of this issue, we can save lives while bridging a cultural gap that only seems to be widening.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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