Dan Baum is the author of Gun Guys which documents how he – a Jewish liberal Democrat – strapped on a Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, left his comfortable home and family in Boulder, Colorado, and undertook a walkabout to meet his fellow gun lovers. His goal: to confront his inner conflict over his love of guns. The book is a thoughtfully composed and revealing look at the reality of gun culture America, and an intimate look at the men – from Jewish submachine gun collector to Hollywood armorer to hog hunter – who love their firearms. We recently sat down at Random House’s offices in Manhattan to talk about the issues raised by this, his fourth book. – Diane Mehta
THE BELIEVER: You say that carrying a firearm gives you a sense of guardianship and moral superiority. Why?
DAN BAUM: You have the secret. You’re wearing this gun and you’re hyper aware of the gun, of how dangerous it is, and you’ve got your head on a swivel all the time because it keeps you in this “condition yellow” I talk about in the book. You walk along the street among the unarmed and you feel like their protector. Because if an Adam Lanza were to show up, you’d be the guy.
BLVR: How does that feel?
DB: It takes you pretty quickly to devaluing the role of government. For a leftie, that’s kind of uncomfortable. We believe in nice, big, vigorous government that’s going to take care of us and protect us—then you realize no, if something were to happen, the police wouldn’t be there. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. To figure out: Why is a fondness for guns the same chromosome as conservative politics?
BLVR: You took some gunfight training. Did it dislodge your belief that you’d be quick enough to handle a real emergency?
DB: When I heard about the Aurora movie-theatre shooting, my first thought was I wish I had been there with my gun. The New York Times editorial page sneered at the idea that an armed citizen would have been any good there—they said thank God there wasn’t an armed citizen; then there would have been two people shooting in the theater. Gun guys would say, “Yeah, you want two people shooting in the theater. What’s worse than one guy with a gun bent on mass murder?”
BLVR: In Gun Guys, you talk about “offensive vigilance.” Is it good for tens of thousands of people to feel amped up? What are the consequences for our collective mental state?
DB: I kind of wish we were all more vigilant without wearing guns. When I see people walking along the street with headphones in and staring at their phones, I think not only is that person in danger, but they’re really kind of useless. I don’t think it’s antithetical to leftist politics or liberal politics or a fondness for the collective to wish that we were all not necessarily armed to kill, but more tuned in to what’s going on around us.
BLVR: Do gun guys think liberals are all a bunch of wusses?
DB: The conservatives say we’re a bunch of oversocialized, overmanaged “sheeple,” and while I’m no less a Democrat than when I started all this, I kind of get it. The idea that things would have come out worse had someone else in Sandy Hook had a gun—to me it seems delusional. People should be allowed to carry guns but the training should be way better. I think it’s a big fucking deal to carry a gun.
BLVR: Do gun owners have some sort of collective hope to seek out drama in a country that is continually never at war at home?
DB: There’s a great book called A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. It talks about what really happens in disasters. People come together in really beautiful ways and the violence all comes from the authorities—I certainly saw that during Katrina. But Solnit says that people always remember disasters as the best time of their life because it is a relief from what Solnit calls the slow-burning perpetual disaster that is everyday life. Life really kinda sucks for a lot of people. So for the gun guys –and even I felt some of this—there’s a desire for life to bust out into the dramatic so I can see what I’m made of.
BLVR: That sounds like it’s verging on paranoid.
DB: I don’t know how paranoid you need to be to say shit happens. People who looked like us, wearing Benetton and Gap clothing, were lined up in front of pits and shot, just for being who they were, in Bosnia. They didn’t have guns to defend themselves.
DM: You say gun guys feel insulted and need respect. But have they earned it?
DB: The bulk of the gun guy demographic is middle-aged white men who didn’t finish college. That’s a population that has been particularly screwed in the last thirty years. Those guys haven’t had a wage increase since 1978. So they’re pissed. But it’s forbidden speech in the U.S. to discuss your plight in terms of class because then you’re just making excuses for your sorry ass. The only people giving them an analysis is the NRA, who comes along and whispers in their ears, “You’re pissed because the liberals are trying to take away your guns.”
BLVR: So they hate Democrats?
DB: I’d meet guys who would be natural Democrats: a parks and rec worker in Wisconsin, plumbers, electricians, and truck drivers. And while the Democratic party goes on and on that they’re all about the working man, these guys won’t listen to the Democrats about anything—about immigration, climate change, women’s rights, gay rights, anything—because of the hostility Democrats have towards guns.
BLVR: Do you think we’re safer with or without guns?
DB: I personally don’t believe that banning assault rifles or adjusting how many rounds are going to be in a magazine is going to yield any improvement in public safety. Besides, until Sandy Hook, we had a shot of taking over the House in 2014. That’s now over. So you feel really good about yourself, Andrew Rosenthal, editorial director of the New York Times, really self-righteous that we support banning these evil rifles? We’re going to have John Boehner now for two more years. Is it worth it? I think it’s not.
BLVR: You come across a lot of Jewish gun owners in the book.
DB: The book’s full of Jews! Isn’t that amazing, I kept coming up with Jews!
BLVR: You paint some loving portraits of a submachine gun competitive shooter, a pig hunter, and Robert, a Jewish gun collector…
DB: I’m getting such hate mail. People really don’t want to show these guys any respect.
BLVR: The hate mail is from the left?
DB: It’s from both sides. The left says these people are accessories to murder. After Sandy Hook and Aurora and every one of these shootings, pundits say the problem is that we have this terrible gun culture. But the law-abiding gun guys say, “Who me? I’m gun culture? Adam Lanza killed those children.” You can imagine how offensive it is to them. It’s like gay people being told they’re to blame for AIDS. What? We’re the victims! Guilt by association is a really toxic thing.
BLVR: Let’s talk about New York City’s gun laws.
DB: New York City has had tough gun laws since the 19th century. It’s the only place that had tough gun laws. So there’s just a different culture here when it comes to guns.
BLVR: The NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly recently said that he supports the assault rifle ban, but it’s handguns that account for most of the murders in New York and in the country. Would the gun show loophole and background checks he mentions help the situation?
DB: Police chiefs are political appointees, they work for mayors, so they will always be anti-gun. But go talk to rank-and-file police officers. I can’t think of a single uniformed police officer of sheriff’s deputy I’ve ever asked about the assault rifle ban and concealed carry laws who did not answer with a totally pro-gun position: “The more citizens carrying guns, the better, because I want good guys carrying guns because I can’t always be there.”
BLVR: What enrages us most is the fact that kids pick up guns at gun shows—
DB: They don’t get them at gun shows, they get them from their parents. If gun guys would lock up their fucking guns, most of what we’re talking about would not happen. We wouldn’t be having this debate about assault rifle bans. We wouldn’t be screaming at each other. The gun guys themselves have to do this and they won’t, and the NRA won’t lead on it. That’s why I hate the NRA. They’re bad for gun guys, bad for us all.
BLVR: Do armed citizens really provide a bulwark against tyranny?
DB: I’ve lived in a bunch of countries where the only people with guns are the army and police, and I don’t like it. I’m old enough to remember when liberals were really suspicious of the military and the police and of excessive police power, so I’m puzzled by liberals’ desire to live in country where the only people with guns are the military and police. Something doesn’t fit.
BLVR: You had a really intimate conversation with Sean Thornton of the NRA about how carrying a gun makes you think about death.
DB: It’s part of what gun guys are proud of: “I’ll think about it,” they say. “I’ll sit here in this restaurant with my gun—never with my back to the door—and imagine something terrible will happen. I’m letting my mind go where you will not let your mind go.” You might think it’s fucked up, macabre, testosterone-poisoned death obsession, but they’re proud of it.
BLVR: It’s a huge personal responsibility to think about death, which is fucking scary.
DB: I think we gun guys get a little contact high from the grim reaper in a way that free climbers and sky divers do. There’s just something about it that’s kind of cool. I take my gun out and put it on. By the end of today, by the time I come home tonight and take this gun off, I might kill somebody with this thing. This bullet, this first bullet in the magazine, might go tearing through somebody. It’s heavy. That’s why I stopped carrying a gun. It was more than I could take.
Photo: Wall Street Journal