Gun Guys: A Road Trip
© 2013 Dan Baum
Why do Americans love guns so much? Dan Baum knew why he loved them. He was the skinny misfit who was mocked and left behind at summer camp, until he discovered the shooting range – a place where anyone who was willing to learn could become a marksman, even fat kids and runts. It was there that his lifelong fondness for firearms began, although his background meant that he was well outside American gun culture. He was a well-heeled liberal Jew from New Jersey, in his own words – – one who loved the kind of things most ‘gun nuts’ hate – taxes, permissive immigration, and an active federal government. A journalist by trade, Baum began exploring the country to understand more about his fellow hobbyists,who he felt so estranged from otherwise.
Aware that he didn’t exactly look like a good ol’ boy, Baum did his best to blend in by sporting an NRA ballcap, and wearing his vintage pistol instead of keeping it in a bedroom safe. Throughout his travels, he met all kinds of gun owners – hunters, competitive shooters, survivalists, obsessive collectors, historical reenactors, and civil rights activists. Establishing a rapport, Baum searched out in conversation why they liked guns, or why they thought other people did. He also threw himself into his questions, exploring behavior he wasn’t entirely comfortable with to try and understand it. He participated in a Texas boar hunt, for instance, with the express purpose of killing as many of the pestilential porcines as possible. One of the more interesting chapters involves a visit to Hollywood, where Baum explores the storage facilities that rent out the weaponry used in movies; the facility includes an exhibit on retired pieces which are famous, like those carried by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. One recurring story is the moddability of certain firearms, particularly the AR-15, which one fond owner refers to as “barbie for guys”.
Although Baum heard a great deal about the legal and revolutionary sanctions for an armed citizenry, the importance of tradition, admiration for craftsmanship, the need of self defense, the outsized role of the frontier in American culture, and so on, it wasn’t until late in the book when his behavioral changes synced with what he was hearing from other gunowners that he had a revelation of sorts. Wearing a firearm meant living in the presence of death; however aesthetically attractive a piece might be, however fun it was to fire, a firearm is inherently dangerous; to wear one, to use one, meant becoming a master over one’s own fear of mortality. Mastering that fear also meant mastering the weapon, learning to use it properly — not only to draw, aim, and fire it, but to read situations and decide when the use of force was appropriate or not. Although Baum felt stressed and paranoid when he first wore a pistol, as time passed that faded into a constant state of background alertness. He was more aware of the people around him and his potential responsibility toward them if something happened and he was needed to stand in the gap. To those accustomed to this feeling of responsibility, being nagged about guns was personally offensive, like being infantalized.
Baum’s journey took him into a lot of thoughtful territory, and regardless of where a random reader finds himself on the gun policy spectrum, there’s something here to consider, as Baum himself struggles with conflicting values. Although by book’s end Baum argues that gun culture has to exercise more communal responsibility , policing irresponsible behavior outside the government (through group mores, organizational regulations, etc), his journey among the gun guys makes him appreciate the hobby and its enthusiasts more, as well as the difficulties and futility of some proposed legislation.