What Liberals Need to Understand About 'Gun Guys'


The author of a new book tries to reconcile his personal politics with his fondness for firearms.


Dan Baum is not your typical gun guy. He has a lifelong love of firearms he can trace back to the age of five. But he's also a Jewish Democrat and a former staff writer for The New Yorker and feels like a misfit next to most gun owners, who identify overwhelmingly on the conservative side of the spectrum.

In order to bridge this gap, Baum set off on a cross-country journey, chatting with everyone from a gun store owner in Louisville to a wild boar hunter in Texas to a Hollywood armorer. The result is Gun Guys: A Road Trip. I spoke with Baum about his trek through gun country and why this issue is one of our nation's most complicated and politically divisive.

You write that you didn't want to be part of a gun culture, even though you were a "gun guy" yourself. Why did you feel this conflict?

This is one of the things I was trying to figure out -- why a fondness for firearms, these beautiful mechanical devices that are so fun to shoot, always seems to be found on the same chromosome as political conservatism. I'm not a conservative. At the same time, often I'd be around my "tribe" -- the liberals -- and they'd say these terrible things about gun people. "Gun nut," "penis envy," all this stuff. I'd keep my mouth shut. I didn't feel particularly comfortable with either group. That's why I always wanted to do this book.

How did the act of carrying a weapon every day affect you?

There's a part of every gun guy that wants to carry a gun because you get to be with your gun all the time. I know that sounds weird, but not if you like guns, you like handling them. Most of the time you don't get to. You take them out of the safe once or twice a year.

It was also a good way to camouflage myself. I don't look like a gun guy, I don't sound like a gun guy -- I sound like just the opposite and I look like just the opposite. They can see me coming a mile away. But if I'm wearing a gun, I'm one of them.

At one point in your trip, you switched from open carry to concealed carry. What was that like?

In some ways I really liked it. It's physically uncomfortable, it's heavy and it digs into you, and you have to be very conscious of your clothing to make sure you're not displaying it, because you really don't want anyone knowing you're carrying it. But it kept me vigilant. You really have your shit together when you're carrying a gun. You never forget you're wearing it. Maybe cops who've been wearing a gun for 30 years forget they're wearing it, but I certainly never did, and I wore it for about 18 months.

It also made me really calm. When you're wearing a gun, you do not get upset if someone takes your parking space, or if someone cuts you in line. You have this quite noble sense of being the sheepdog, being the protector. And I liked that.

But then you start wondering -- what is my responsibility here? It's really complicated. Say you're in a shopping mall and somebody starts shooting. What do you do? If you run away, are you like a doctor who doesn't respond when someone starts choking in a restaurant? If you're wearing a gun, do you have an obligation to run towards the sound of the guns?

Did your experience bring you any closer to understanding what war veterans might experience when they return home to a non-combat zone?

No, I just can't imagine it. I've written a lot about vets, and they tell me it takes a long time when you come home to stop scanning the tree line. That's often how they put it. You take your kids to the park and you're scanning the tree line. I have a tremendous amount of admiration for veterans who are going through that. It's amazing that more of them aren't affected.

We have a real problem here because veterans often come from cultures where they really enjoy owning guns. A veteran who comes home with PTSD and reports for treatment could lose his gun rights, and they know that. So they don't want to report for treatment. They think they're never going to be able to own a gun if they see a shrink.

Do you think we should allow citizens to be armed in places like schools and movie theaters?

After the Aurora movie theater happened, the New York Times and others sneered at the idea that an armed citizen would have made a difference. They said, "Then there would have been two people shooting in the theater, which would've been worse." I'm thinking, "What could possibly be worse?"

You go in a shopping mall, there's a guy with a gun. Obviously, what we're hoping is that there will be a gunfight, that there will be two people shooting, in the event that something bad happens. But we can't put armed guards and policemen everywhere. So to me, armed citizens make sense. But it really looks like my fellow liberals have an aversion to the thought of the individual citizen being of service with a gun in a situation like that.

When you carried your gun into a Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, no one reacted. But when you went into a Mexican grocery, everyone was on guard. Why do you think that was?

I honestly think the people in Whole Foods -- their eyes saw it and their brain didn't. They may have thought I was some kind of cop, even though I really don't look like it. But in the Mexican store, they didn't know what to expect. In Mexico, no one gets to carry a gun. Which is kind of crazy, given what's going on down there. That's a good example -- you've got innocents being slaughtered down there, but they can't defend themselves. It's always the people who live in nice neighborhoods who want gun control.

In a gun store in Denver, a shopper warns you that purchasing a new gun is "like heroin; the first taste is cheap." What do you think of this analogy?

He was talking particularly about the AR-15. You can accessorize it endlessly. You can always be taking this part off and getting a new part. It's like bike guys who always have to have the new spokes, a certain kind of gear head. This is why the AR-15 is profitable - because there's this endless universe of parts.

But are guns addictive? We gun guys tell each other all the time -- we take a newbie shooting and they love it. They want to go again. I have rarely taken somebody shooting who didn't enjoy it. Gun guys are always urging each other to take somebody shooting. That's how you win them over.

Do you think there's any danger in that fascination?

I don't. We're talking about really dangerous things, and you have to teach people the rules. But if you follow them, you'll be safe. If I take somebody shooting, I stand behind them. I have my hand up at about their shoulder, so if they start to turn, which they often do, you can catch their arm. It's serious business.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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