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.

I want to go back to the gun law history. In 1987, Florida responded to a wave of crime by loosening restrictions. Were you surprised by what happened as a result?

At the time, I thought, "Oh, this is going to be a bloodbath." And it wasn't. The late '80s were a very violent time in the U.S. The crack cocaine thing was in full flower. Then Florida did this, and most liberals thought it was crazy. But crime dropped. A lot. Crime there is now half of what it was before then.

There are people who argue that it's cause and effect. Good guys carry guns, and crime drops because the bad guys are afraid to commit crimes. I think there are all kinds of reasons why crime dropped. But clearly, it didn't go up. Clearly, what we thought was going to happen -- that every fender-bender was going to be a gunfight -- did not happen. Now that I've carried a gun, I know why. It was a huge turning point in gun control history because it was the first time the gun rights movement went on offense.

Over the course of your trip you often heard talk of how gun violence is on the rise. But gun violence across the U.S. has actually gone down. Can you talk about the disconnect here?

If you want to carry a gun, you want to justify carrying the gun. You have a better justification if you convince yourself that crime is out of control. So the desire to carry a gun precedes the fear of crime.

The people who buy most of the guns are middle-aged white men who have not finished college. That demographic has been particularly screwed in this society in the past 30 years. They are losing ground economically, they are losing ground culturally, but in this country, to talk about your circumstances as part of a class is forbidden. So these guys have no vocabulary for discussing what has happened to them. All they know is, they're pissed.

The only people giving them a voice is the NRA, who comes along whispering in their ears, "The liberals want to take away your guns." The gun is the one thing that makes these guys feel vital and useful and powerful and capable. They're managing these incredibly dangerous weapons, not hurting anybody, maybe they're wearing a gun and keeping people around them safe. They get a lot of pride and a lot of self-esteem from having these guns. This is not crazy, and this is not pitiable -- this is real.

So this desire to believe that crime is out of control is a desire to justify having a gun. It all fits together.

We do have one of the highest homicide rates of all developed countries.

That's not really true. Our homicide rate is a quarter of Russia's. We're high compared to Western Europe. We're high compared to Japan. But as I'm always trying to tell people -- we're not all Japanese in this country. We're not all British. We're an incredibly complicated, polyglot country with an incredible amount of personal freedom. It's a miracle we get along as well as we do. There were 11,000 gun murders last year. In a country of 330 million people, as complicated as we are and as free as we are, that may not be an alarming number.

Nick Kristoff wrote a column in the New York Times about a gun standoff that was the result of a disagreement over a goose. He argued that instead of preventing conflict, guns actually escalate it. What's your response to this?

I think we are all too cavalier with our guns. I fault both sides, really. The NRA and its handmaidens want us to believe that the whole problem is criminals, and they will not take responsibility. We need to lock guns up. Training should be better. And I think the anti-gun side needs to show gun guys more respect and needs to summon gun guys to respect themselves more. I think we all need to take this more seriously. We have 300 million privately owned guns in this country. Let's really talk about how we can be safer.

Joe Nocera at the Times runs a daily tally of gun killings. He's not running a daily tally of how many people defend themselves with guns. For one thing we don't know about it most of the time. David Hemenway at Harvard is very pro gun-control and he thinks it happens about 80,000 times a year. If that's true, that means that guns are saving 10 times as many people as they're killing.

I call for my fellow liberals to approach gun owners with respect. These are the people who understand guns, these are the people who can help us figure out how to be safer around guns. Instead, you drive them into a defensive crouch by calling gun culture the problem.

What do you think Democrats should know about the average gun guy?

I think they should know how much self-esteem gun guys derive from their guns, how patriotic they feel. And lawmakers need to stop thinking that the NRA represents gun owners, because only 4 percent of gun owners belong to the NRA. They need to think of gun owners as rational responsible people who genuinely care about gun violence and would like to be helpful.

These are precisely the kind of people the Democratic Party says it exists to serve. Over and over, people I met on my trip would say, "I don't get it. Democrats are the party of the working man. How can the Democrats do this?" They feel so alienated that they won't listen to the Democrats on climate change or health care or immigration or anything else. As a Democrat, it broke my heart to hear this over and over and over again. These are our guys. These are our people, and they hate us. We take this anti-gun position and we're giving these people away, and we're getting nothing in exchange. We are not making the country safer.

When President Obama said he thought we aren't doing enough, as a country, to protect our children, do you agree?

No, not really. I think we're doing what we can without turning ourselves into a very different country. Do we really want metal detectors in every school? Armed guards? I don't think so. Now, does it make sense if a teacher has a concealed carry permit to allow the teacher have a gun? I don't know. That's worth discussing. Given the kind of country we are and the freedoms we enjoy, there's a certain amount of bad shit we have to put up with. But that's really antithetical to the American character.

I was writing a piece in West Berlin in 1979 and a guy said to me, "You're an American. You think every problem has to have a solution." We have this impulse in the U.S. to do something. We have no national church, so the only way we can express our public morality is to say there ought to be a law. It's antithetical to the American can-do character to say there are certain things we just can't do much about.

At the end of this trip, did you feel any less conflicted about your place in the gun world?

No. I still don't really belong in either camp. If you watch the reaction to the book when it comes out, you will see that. I'm no less a Democrat than I was, but I am more attuned to the gun guy complaint -- "I am over-managed and I am under-respected as a citizen and a human being." I think the right has a point there. We need to stop fearing capable, empowered, independent-thinking individuals.