Guns are a lot like children. Bearing either is a grave responsibility — yet any idiot can do it. Some do. Discharging one baby or another into the world is fraught with potential, righteous and ruinous. (Guns last much longer than kids, though; virtually forever.) Just as many of the childless are quick to bemoan others' poor parenting, those who don't own guns are often critical, even contemptuous, of those who do.
That's the social chasm Dan Baum explores in his new book, Gun Guys: A Road Trip. For a year he traveled the United States, stopping at every gun shop his phone apps could locate, dropping in on gun shows and shooting ranges to interact with the men of his title and try to answer some basic questions: "Why do we like these things? Why do they move us so deeply?'' His encounters show just how emotionally charged firearms are in our America — and he researched and wrote before the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
Baum's an accomplished nonfiction storyteller; Nine Lives, his 2009 book on post-Katrina New Orleans, is terrific. But when we learn early on that our 50-something narrator is a liberal Democrat living in crunchy Boulder, Colo., a "stoop-shouldered, bald-headed, middle-aged'' yoga-lover in pleated pants and glasses, a predictable arc emerges. And one expectation is fully met: Gun Guys distrust him immediately.
However, there's a fresher, more compelling dimension to the tale: Baum's a Gun Guy, too, and that saves the book. A gifted target shooter since age 5 who later became a deer hunter, Baum says he's "spent a lifetime carrying around an enthusiasm that has made me feel slightly ashamed.''
Moreover, Baum is a Gun Jew. No one in his New Jersey upbringing could countenance guns, but the author, in thrall to James Bond, looked forward to temple because he wore a suit jacket, which allowed him to conceal a fake Luger "with a Magic Marker jammed into the barrel as a silencer. That delicious bulk under my arm sustained me.''
Later the Vietnam War and hippie era made guns uncool. Yet he still loved — loves — them. Baum doesn't "have to go far to learn about the nation's conflicted attitudes about guns,'' he writes. "I could just tour the inside of my own skull.''
Around the time of President Barack Obama's first inaugural, Baum sets off. He tries to engage with "cachers,'' folks who buy weapons and bury them in PVC piping to counter the confiscation they know is coming. But they won't talk to him — instead, they post pictures of his family online. Baum meets the head of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership and a Two-Gun Rabbi. What Jews should never forget, they say, is the 1938 Nazi ban on them owning firearms.
Baum visits with armorers for Hollywood movies, kills feral pigs in Texas and sits down with a former Chicago gangbanger. This erstwhile Vice Lord says he knows guns "from both ends'' — he's been shot twice and has killed a former friend with a .22.
Throughout, a different gun, the AR-15, looms large. At the ranges he visits, this black plastic "military style'' weapon is ubiquitous — due in part, Baum posits, to its star turns in video games. (It's commonly referred to as an "assault rifle'' but real military weapons can fire continuously, while the AR-15 is semi-automatic. And AR stands for Armalite, the company that first produced it.)
It's effortless to use, Baum finds, gives little recoil and makes everyone a good shot. "Imagine,'' Baum writes, "a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.'' The AR is infinitely customizable; one blue-collar guy Baum meets spent $800 for the AR and $3500 tricking it out with a scope, laser sighting and other accessories. (It can even be converted into a shotgun.) As one shooter ruefully acknowledges, "It's Barbie for men.''
Baum naturally has to include a victim of gun violence, and he gives us Peter Benoit, living in a wheelchair since his girlfriend shot him in the throat with a "neat little .38'' Benoit bought at a gun show for $50. Baum makes him a real, dimensional character, but the moral of his story is not surprising: "If only,'' Benoit says, "I hadn't bought that ----ing gun.''
That's the (nonfatal) trouble here; much of what Baum encounters in gun country is exactly what you can imagine. Angry gun-rights activists viscerally hate Obama, though until Newtown he did nothing to curtail them; they see crime as out of control despite the plunging stats and rail against perceived Second Amendment violations. Nutty or not, Baum confirms, the vast majority of gun owners — 40 percent of U.S. adults — handle them responsibly and don't commit crimes. Strangely, the author doesn't spend that much time explicitly exploring guns and gender. (Fifteen percent of American women own firearms, says Gallup.)
Fortunately, Baum the Gun Guy is less common and more complex. His inner journey is more rewarding than his outward one, and he remains the heart of the story. When he starts packing a revolver beneath his jacket, Baum becomes less confrontational; he's vigilant, but not a vigilante. When one of two suspicious guys he passes on a dark city night calls him a "faggot,'' he doesn't "even gesture in the direction of anger.'' The preparation and daily safety checks gun carrying requires make him more aware and organized in all aspects of his life. "Wearing the gun, I was Mr. Together.''
But in his beloved New Orleans, "carrying around the device that had wreaked so much horror on the people [there] felt like betrayal,'' Baum reports. "Even if it made me feel safer, it made me lonely.''
Baum's also more much articulate than the average gun-lover — or hater. After getting killed repeatedly in police-training simulations, he trades in his quaint revolver for a Glock 19, the kind of pistol Jared Loughner used to shoot Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen others in Arizona.
"It was a terrifically ugly thing, as graceless as a stapler,'' Baum notes, "utterly without charm. The slide was shaped like a stick of margarine . . . but it put bullets where I wanted them to go.''
What does it all mean? Why are Americans, especially men, such gun lovers? Where others see only angry losers, Baum sees the devout. Gun owners are a tribe, he thinks, and "the gun [is] the physical manifestation of the tribe's binding philosophy,'' rooted in individualism, patriotism, manliness, certainty and action. For them the gun becomes "the idol on the altar'' and it's "invested with supernatural powers — to stop crime, defend the republic against tyranny, make boys into men.''
The opposing tribe, liberals — to which half of Baum belongs — exalts other values, recognizes "the gun as a sacred totem'' and thinks it can "weaken the enemy by smashing his idols,'' i.e., banning or controlling guns. Between those two warring castes Baum sees no peace.
Perhaps the keenest decoding of gun culture arises at one of Baum's last visits, to the NRA offices in Fairfax, Va. Sean Thornton, who works in the education and training division, doesn't run from guns' lethality by insisting as usual that it's people who kill. Instead, he embraces it. "Absolutely,'' he tells Baum, guns "are about death. That's a huge part of the attraction.''
But Thornton doesn't mean dealing death: "They're about mastering death. Mastering the fear of it. You're accepting responsibility for taking death in your hands, something a lot of people don't even want to think about.''
Baum buys it, but his ambivalence still runs deep. "If equal is good, and guns make men equal,'' he hazards at one point, "then by extension guns are good.'' Right?
John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa. His next book is a history of rhythm and blues in Florida.