The Outside Blog

Adventure : Media

Sebastian Junger Shoots For the Truth

THE SCENE FADES IN from black. A hand-held camera pans the inside of a car weaving through the streets of Misrata, on Libya’s coast. It’s April 20, 2011, and the city, a stronghold for antigovernment rebels, is under siege by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. We see the driver, a rakish rebel, and his passengers, several photojournalists looking out the windows at the smoldering remnants of buildings. The cameraman asks, “Which way is the front line from here?”

At that point, you realize what you’re watching: Tim Hetherington on his way to die. Hetherington, the man holding the camera, was one of the most respected conflict photographers in the world. Within a few hours of the car ride, the 40-year-old Briton was killed in a mortar attack, along with renowned American photographer Chris Hondros. Hetherington’s femoral artery was ruptured by shrapnel, and he bled to death in the back of a pickup truck on the way to a hospital.

Hetherington’s question, which arrives just minutes into the film, is also its title. Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? premiered at Sundance in January and airs on HBO in April. It was directed by writer Sebastian Junger, who became a close friend of Hetherington’s when the two worked together in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. The 80-minute documentary takes the measure of the photographer’s extraordinary life and work, weaving Hetherington’s own footage, from Liberia to Afghanistan to Libya, together with Junger’s interviews with heart-broken friends, colleagues, and family. As with the new Hetherington biography Here I Am, by American author Alan Huffman, it presents a powerful case that, in the age of citizen journalism, when anyone with a camera phone can be a contributing reporter, dedicated and talented professionals still deliver the most revealing stories.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? suggests that Hetherington’s success had as much to do with his personality as his ability to capture the essence of war. Lanky and affable, Hetherington charmed everyone he met. A born searcher, he came to photography in his mid-twenties to, as he later put it, “try to explain the world to the world.”

Hetherington’s most penetrating imagery stands out for what it isn’t: gory, brutal, or shocking. His vision of warfare had him seeking out the pauses between the action that transfixed so many of his colleagues. Beginning in the late 1990s, he spent years in West Africa photographing the fallout of conflicts—victims of land mines, children blinded by war criminals, an abandoned hospital. Hetherington’s 2007 shot of an exhausted American soldier in Afghanistan won the Photo of the Year award from the World Press Association. And in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, Junger describes a poignant episode during the filming of Restrepo, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary the two made about an American platoon in Afghanistan, in which Hetherington snapped portraits of soldiers as they slept.

Hetherington also distinguished himself by his level of commitment. During the Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003, he and fellow Briton James Brabazon were the only foreign journalists to live behind rebel lines, which prompted president Charles Taylor to call for their capture and execution. He worked with Human Rights Watch on a number of projects. In Afghanistan, he and Junger financed much of Restrepo themselves while on assignment for Vanity Fair.

Ultimately, Hetherington allowed his sensitivity and empathy to direct his camera, an approach that may have been his greatest strength. As Brabazon says in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, “Tim didn’t see a division between being a photographer or a videographer or a humanitarian or a participant. He was just Tim.”

View some of Tim Hetherington's photos here.

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Earth Operatives: Filmmaker Briar March

The story of climate change is a hard one to tell. It is slow. It is based largely on models and one-by-one weather events and broken temperature events. Unfortunately, it's a story that is becoming easier to tell. Still, conveying the deep, societal impact of climate change remains difficult.

Briar March, a 32-year-old filmmaker from New Zealand, found the story of climate change being played out on Takuu, an isolated atoll in the South Pacific, near Papua New Guinea. Her documentary film, There Once Was an Island, conveys the threats that the 400 Polynesian inhabitants of the atoll are facing as rising waters threaten to submerge their home and unique culture.

We talked to March about her adventures behind the camera, why she became a filmmaker, and what she's working on now.

How did you learn about Takuu and the fact that rising seas threaten to submerge it? What attracted you to the story?
I was trying to find a way to tell a story about climate change that reaches the human aspect, and how it impacts us on social and cultural levels. I learned about Takuu in a magazine article—the article was written by Richard Moyle, an ethnomusicologist from Auckland. He had been visiting Takuu for 14 years and was interested in the community because of their music. The traditional music was very Polynesian and not affected by Christianity. [In the article] he mentioned that the island was seeing environmental changes. I was immediately struck by the island as allegory for the whole planet. How they respond to change could be a symbol of how we all respond to climate change.

I grew up in a rural part of New Zealand and had an amazing childhood where I was near the sea and really related to feeling strongly connected to a place. When I thought of an island disappearing, it seemed beyond comprehension. So it was something I had to explore.

Tell us about the process of shooting the film—just getting on and off the atoll sounded like it was very arduous.
It was an insane process. My producer, Lyn Collie, was the mastermind behind the logistics. We took two trips, one in 2006 and another in 2008. There is no phone on the island, just a radio for ships. We had to factor in power and a lot of questions. And what if the camera breaks down? What if our tapes are destroyed? No one in New Zealand speaks the Takuu language, so how are we going to translate it? We were also restricted by the boat, because it only makes four trips per year [and there is no posted schedule]. When we get to Buka [the nearest developed island], we sat around for a few weeks wondering when the boat would leave. The second time we came we chartered a boat.

How did the Takuu people feel about your presence?
Since this film I've started filming in other communities and it made me realize how much we were embraced in that community. Everyone was looking out for me, saying hi to me. We got some special treatment.

But on the first trip something dramatic happened. There is this long singing ceremony—they sing all night. Someone had a heart attack and passed away. Everyone immediately changed what they were doing and started wailing quite loudly and I started following what was happening. I asked someone if it's OK and they said yes, but later I felt not everyone was OK about it. It was a moment when I didn't know where I should be with my camera. I realized asking questions isn't enough, because sometimes people don’t say what they really feel.

In another instance, some people didn't get why we were filming the culture and we had to explain that we were doing that because it's something that could be lost if they're forced to retreat from the atoll. Some people felt we would make a lot of money from the film [in an exploitive way]. But good on them for being assertive of their own culture and not wanting to be exploited. In the end, if you spend long enough in a place, and form deep relationships, it will come out in your work.

Your film was released in 2010. Has anything happened to the Takuu culture? Have they been forced to flee?
There has been no mass relocation—it's a slow-changing process. The water hasn't risen so high that it's fully submerged but there are increased flooding events, increased storms, acidification, and things that over time make it harder to live in places like Takuu.

There are other islands that are facing this, too, and of course the Maldives have brought a lot of attention to sea level rise. But Takuu is unique because of its [singular] culture.

In terms of the government—Papua New Guinea is the regional government, but Bougainville is trying to become independent from Papua New Guinea, so really it's Bougainville that is governing Takuu—they've not done anything about it. They talk about relocation but haven't done anything.

You studied art at the University of Auckland but then attended Stanford University to get a master's in documentary film and video. What drew you to filmmaking?
I didn’t feel the issues and ideas I was exploring were reaching the audience I wanted to reach. I love the idea that film can be distributed so widely. The potential for reaching people ... it seemed like I had so much more access with that medium. So in the last year of art school I started making Allie Eagle and Me [about an artist who was a controversial figure in 1970s New Zealand for her feminist politics]. I didn't have much training but I learned on the go. After that I dabbled in different types of film work and never really found my feet in terms of a career, because with the ones I was making, you can't rely on income. With the master's degree, I can use that to teach.

Your filmography is pretty diverse, including a short you made about Blackfire, a Navajo punk band from Arizona. Your current projects range from films about athletes with disabilities to the privatization of public housing in New Zealand. What do you do in your free time?
I don’t have any! When you're making films like this, it's immersed into your life. There are huge adventures. I really love traveling and adventure tourism and that style of traveling—you're going into environments that are not always easy. I think documentary filmmaking is a form of adventure travel. You have to put yourself outside your comfort zone. You can't expect what will happen next and then you have to get to the finish line and there's a lot of emotional stuff you're taking on, too, which is very demanding and tiring. So now I am making a journey into New Zealand, which is really great for me.

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Behind the Scenes of 'Maidentrip': 17-Year-Old Laura Dekker's Solo Sail Around the World

“I was born on a boat in New Zealand. I lived my first five years at sea. And ever since, all I've wanted is to return to that life.” So begins Maidentrip, a remarkable new documentary about Laura Dekker, the 17-year-old sailor who, in 2012, became the youngest person to sail around the world alone. The film debuted on Sunday at South by Southwest in Austin, before a crowd of about 300 people, and will make the rounds on the festival circuit this spring.

Laura’s story sparked an international controversy in 2009, when she announced her plans to attempt a solo circumnavigation. She was 14 at the time and quickly became embroiled in a contentious, 10-month court battle with the Dutch government, which deemed the voyage unsafe for the teen and tried to remove her from her father’s custody. Laura and her father prevailed, and in August 2010, she set sail from the Netherlands in her 38-foot ketch, Guppy.

Maidentrip documents her 17 months alone at sea. There was no chase boat, support staff, or film crew. Laura shot all of the footage aboard Guppy herself, using a Sony Handy Cam she rigged to the boat. The effect is an intimate, arresting portrait of the young sailor, who for much of the film stares wide-eyed into the camera, as though she can’t quite believe she’s doing it, either. Though you never see the camera, it takes on its own personality, a kind of default crew and confidante for the solo skipper.

Director Jillian Schlesinger, 29, who’d read about Laura in The New York Times in 2009 and approached her with the idea of making a documentary about the trip, wanted the project to feel organic and unscripted. “I wanted to let her tell her own story, and give her a voice, in a way that the sensational mainstream media hadn’t,” says Schlesinger. “Doing something so extreme with so much passion is an art, and that’s how I approached it with Laura. I was really interested in finding out why, as a 14-year-old, she wanted to do this. She had no interest in being famous. She really just loves to sail.”

Schlesinger, who makes her living writing and producing TV promos, spent three years working on Maidentrip. It's her first film. Like Laura’s voyage, the project became her own epic quest. "I always had a dream of making films,” she says. “There are a million reasons not to follow your dream, but as Laura once said to me, ‘You don’t have to know that you can do something. You just have to try.’”

Schlesinger met Laura en route nine times during the course of the 17-month journey, collecting footage, giving her topics for recording unscripted voice diaries, and occasionally shooting dry-land video. In the Galapagos, Laura convinced her to hop a sailboat with a Canadian family for an unplanned “race” across the Pacific. “After wasting a lot of money changing plane tickets, I finally learned not to make firm plans when I met up with Laura, so I’d bought a one-way ticket,” recalls Schlesinger, whose father dropped out of school to sail to Central America. “Sailing across the Pacific started out as a joke. It was daunting to think about being away from the world for three weeks, but I knew it would be compelling to film Laura at sea. In the end, though, we never saw her. We left later than she did and even though we were in a faster boat, she was busting ass to the Marquesas. She got there a day ahead of us.”

No surprise. Laura was born to sail. When she was five, she and her parents returned to the Netherlands, but later divorced. Laura moved in with her dad, who worked in a boatyard, so she could keep sailing. She got her first dingy when she was six, sailed throughout Holland during the summers, and made her first solo crossing, to England, when she was 13. In the film’s early, archival footage, we see a small smiling sailor dwarfed by her life jacket, sailing a tiny dingy with her dog, Spot.

But out on Guppy on the open sea, Laura grows up fast. She cuts her hair, dyes it red, learns to cook and eat ravioli without spilling it when huge swells hit, starts to swear, celebrates her 16th birthday in Darwin, Australia, with her dad, who flies in to help her repair her sails after a wind-battered crossing, and wrestles with her own identity as a sailor and a daughter. In one poignant scene in French Polynesia, she replaces her Dutch flag with the flag of New Zealand, country of her birth. “I don't have any real connection to Holland anymore," she says. "I don't want to go back. I don't really have a home. Home to me is Guppy."

Though she shares a deep love of sailing with her father, and both he and her mother meet up with her along the way, the farther she gets from home, the more her family recedes. The overwhelming impression you get from Maidentrip is of a young girl bobbing happily alone on the enormous ocean. Except for a few moments, when she sets out from the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic and is so homesick she can't eat for two days, and later when she passes through the Panama Canal—a point-of-no-return where the voyage "just started to get serious"— Laura seems utterly at home at sea, at peace with her solitude, fiercely independent, and unflappable in the face of stiff challenges.

When a storm approaches in the Atlantic, she raises an eyebrow at the camera and starts cursing, "Shit, shit!" But then the first waves slap her bow, and she shouts, "Woohoo! That was so beautiful! Really super awesome!" She grows increasingly comfortable with long crossings—47 days on the Indian Ocean—and less interested in going ashore. "Now I've really started to like the long passages more, just because they give you so much time to think," Laura says in one of her voice diaries. She rounds the Cape of Good Hope in huge swells and a storm that most seasoned sailors would sit out. Not Laura. "I didn't feel anything but focused. Being scared was totally gone. I didn't feel that I was hungry or tired. I was just doing it."

By the time she cruises into St. Martin, in January 2012, bypassing Holland to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe—27,000 nautical miles in 519 days—her transformation from girl to self-reliant solo captain is complete. "I wanted the storms. I wanted the calms. I wanted to feel loneliness," she says. "And now I know all these things. It's the end of the dream I had as a kid, and it's the beginning of my life as a sailor."

When we last see Laura, she has taken on a crew and is bound for New Zealand, where she lives now, working at a dive shop, racing, studying for her captain’s license, and plotting her next big voyage. There’s talk of a circumnavigation of the Americas, an Arctic Ocean passage, for which she’ll need a steel boat.

It’s impossible to watch Maidentrip and not want to immediately start scheming your own audacious adventure. Laura’s unscripted optimism is contagious. Last night, my four-year-old daughter sat rapt at our kitchen table, watching parts of a movie in which a girl only 10 years older than she is accomplishes the impossible dream. As a mother and adventurer, I can only hope that some of Laura's daring and passion rubs off on Pippa. To raise adventurous children, as Laura's father learned when she and Guppy set sail, means that someday, you have to let them go.

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The Fly Fishing Poet

Which Chris Dombrowski you know depends on whether you spend more time fishing or reading. Those that fish will know him as one of Montana’s finest guides—his clients include David James Duncan and Jim Harrison. But the one thing he does better than read a river is write poems. Jonah Ogles reached him in Michigan, where he spends the academic year teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, to catch up, talk about his new book, Earth Again, steelhead, and how A River Runs Through It made him want to be a writer.

A lot of writers are drawn to fly fishing. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure exactly. I wasn’t ever a writer who started fishing. Pretty early on, I think after reading Zane Grey, I determined that I wanted to be a writer who fished and not a fisherman who wrote about fishing. But it is a noticeable thing. I don’t think you would say, So many writers play an instrument, even though there are presumably as many writers who play an instrument as there are writers that fish. I think it’s because of attention on the physical world. I think that the act of writing can be an entrance into a wilderness in the same way that a canyon can be. I think we’d all agree that when fishing we’re not the same person we are when we’re mowing the lawn or paying the bills. Yeats said as much when he sat down to write. He wasn’t the same person who made oats and bitched about the morning news.

I think there’s a patience that both things teach you.
I’ve thought about fishing a lot as a metaphor for the act of writing. Any angler who’s ever spent a good amount of time on the water has struck those kind of magical golden moments, when suddenly the river comes alive. You’re fishing the same pool you’ve fished 15 times and suddenly there are trout rising everywhere in it in a way you’ve never imagined before. I think a similar sensation can occur for the writer, too—when language is coming alive and bristling and sparking. And a lot of it has to do with putting oneself in the stream over and over again.

It’s funny to me how the natural world inspires that. You talk to a hunter or a climber about poetry and their eyes glaze over. You talk to them about their last elk or climb, and they become poets.
With the hunter instinct comes a need to tell stories of the hunt.

When was the moment that you realized you had that need to tell stories?
I recently wrote an essay about my high school English teacher. He was a fascinating man named Jim Colando. He basically rescued me from being a jock for the rest of my life. I was really involved in sports all through college. He knew that I had just started fly fishing, maybe a year or so before. And he came into class and he handed me A River Runs Through It and said, I think you may like this book. By the time class was over I was on page 20, by the time school got over it I was on page 50. It was the first book I read cover to cover that wasn’t required for class. In that experience came the realization that my experiences in the physical world could be completely re-enacted in language. That was a magical experience. And with it came also a kind of charge. Suddenly it’s not just enough to exist in the physical world, I have to find a way to reconstruct the experience in language. Or re-live experiences, which is what writing is. It’s a second life.

When you get that need to get outside of yourself, does either activity fill the need? Or do you get a specific urge to write or fish?
When I’m writing a lot, I feel like I need to fish or walk the dogs or hunt to get out of my head. If I’m not writing, I feel the opposite way, like I need to get back to the desk and spend some hours hunched over it. But I never feel like a day spent away from writing—be it with a fly-rod or a shotgun or with the kids hunting morels—I never feel like that is wasted. There’s a pile of steelhead at the mouth of the Platte right now. I know it. I know it wouldn’t hurt me to spend a morning doing that, but I’ve been working on some stuff at the desk and I don’t want to leave it alone.

Your summers out in Montana, that guide schedule must be crazy. You have to be up really early or really late depending on conditions or the client. How do you balance your writing time with that kind of schedule?
Well, a lot of it happens on the backs of receipts or in a little notebook I keep in the car. I just don’t get a ton of writing done from the end of May through the end of August. So then September rolls around and I feel this immense pressure of all the images or the things I’ve jotted down over the months, and I’m going to explode if I can’t sit down and start doing some writing. Norman MacLean called it a recipe for schizophrenia, going back and forth between teaching and his home in Montana. But it’s become more and more part of the rhythm of my life. You know, just about the time. This is going to make it sound too perfect, because usually I could use a little more outdoor and a little less teaching time. But just about the time I’m ready to be done with teaching, fishing season rolls around. And just about the time I’m ready to be done fishing, it’s time for school.

You’re a teacher and now you have kids, who pop up throughout the book. I kept wondering how you were teaching them to either love language or love the outdoors.
I don’t think I’ve taught them anything. I think they’ve taught me. Kids exist in a natural state of wonder. There are certain things I can teach, like why, before a pale morning dun emerges, a soft hackle swung through the water does really well. But really I try to learn from them.

Does the guiding ever get old?
I’m in my 17th year guiding, and 70 percent of my clients are return customers. So 60 days of my summer are spent with my friends. They’re interesting. I have a Jungian psychologist who's a regular client, a Hollywood acting coach, a world-renowned photographer. A British timber baron. I keep saying that if I didn't have to gas up the car, clean the boat, or get lunch together every day, I'd never stop. If I had a roadie, I'd guide forever.

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A Liberal With a Gun

Dan Baum was “a pudgy, overmothered cherub” of five when he first shot a gun, he writes in his new book Gun Guys: A Road Trip. At summer camp, an adult showed him how to use a Mossberg .22-caliber rifle. “I cannot remember the names of my neighbors’ grown children or the seventh dwarf,” Baum writes, “but to this day I can summon every detail of that rifle and its metallic, smoky, chemical aroma.”

Despite the fact that he came from a gun-averse Democratic household, Baum fell hard for guns, and he’s been trying to figure out why ever since. In every other respect, the 56-year-old journalist is as liberal as they come—a believer in “unions, gay rights, progressive taxation, the United Nations,” and President Obama. A few years ago, having already written books about drug laws, the Coors brewing dynasty, and the people of New Orleans, Baum decided that it was finally time to tackle what he calls “my gun thing.” He worried that gun guys wouldn’t accept him if he didn’t look the part, so he signed up for an NRA-approved concealed-carry class and got a permit to carry a handgun. Then he shoved a .38-caliber Colt Detective Special in his waistband and set off on a cross-country road trip, stopping at gun stores along the way in search of “the essential quality” about guns that, “like anchovies on pizza, impassioned some people and disgusted others.”

The book is sure to anger people on both sides of the chasm. Baum criticizes the NRA, pokes fun at his gung-ho firearm instructors, and argues that anyone who wants to carry a gun needs “much much much much better training” than what’s commonly offered. On the other hand, he treats people who want tighter gun laws with suspicion, he unapologetically defends the cultural resentments of straight, white men, and he ignores the phenomenon of mass shootings, at least in the body of the book, addressing them in a postscript written after James Holmes killed 12 and wounded 58 in Aurora, Colorado, and Adam Lanza murdered 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Baum is a quirky writer with an original point of view, and with Gun Guys he’s made an important addition to the literature. A clear, stylish writer, he has a knack for getting gun enthusiasts to open up—their stories are compelling and sometimes surprising. Here, Baum talks to Jason Fagone about the appeal of the AR-15 rifle, the link between gun love and social class, and how carrying a firearm changes the way you look at the world.

What I like about your book is that you write frankly about guns as seductive objects. They work on the psyche in ways that aren’t talked about a lot.
I’ve always wanted to get at why we love these things so much. I live in this liberal, Democratic, gun-hating world, and I like guns, so I’m often in the position of feeling like a closeted gay man. We wouldn’t say terrible things about black people or gay people, but it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about testosterone-poisoned gun freaks. Meanwhile, the NRA—which I hate, and which doesn’t represent me—is making all kinds of assumptions about gun people, and the left is, too. So I said, I’m going to go out and talk to gun guys.

You’re an unlikely narrator for a book about gun love.
I don’t look like a gun guy. I’m a Jewish boy from the suburbs of New York. Nobody had guns there. It was a million miles from gun culture. Because I don’t look like a gun guy, I got a concealed-carry permit. It was my entrée. If you carry a gun, you’re one of them. But I also wanted to see what it was like to carry a gun.

I like your description of how carrying a gun changes the way you look at the world.
Changes everything.

You say it puts you in a state of mind called Condition Yellow. What is that?
Condition Yellow is.... I don’t want to say a state of hyper-vigilance, because that makes it sound bad. But it is a heightened awareness of everything that is going on around you. It is an awesome responsibility to walk around with a gun. You’ve really got to have your shit together when you’re wearing a gun. It really tightens the laces on your life in kind of an appealing way. That’s Condition Yellow. When I wasn’t wearing the gun—when I was visiting a state that did not honor my concealed-carry permit, or when I knew I would be drinking—I would go back to Condition White, which is a state of obliviousness about your surroundings. And I would realize how much I liked Condition White. That’s where you daydream, and it’s where art happens, and I like that, too. Ultimately, I decided to stop wearing the gun, because I got burned out on Condition Yellow. I think it’s left me in a kind of Condition Pale Yellow.

In the end, it seemed like you doubted your ability to actually stop a violent crime. You weren’t enough of a warrior.

I don’t want to spoil it, but you go through a very intense kind of shooting test involving a sophisticated machine used to train police.
And after I go through that, I get a better gun. For a while, I go further into the gun carrying.

You get a Glock.
And I don’t like it. There’s no reason to like a Glock. I like old guns. The Glock is just an utterly charmless man killer. That’s all it’s good for. It has no aesthetic value. But it really shoots well, and it holds a lot of bullets. When the Aurora shooting happened, in the movie theater, I had stopped carrying my gun by then, but what went through my mind is what I’m sure went through a lot of gun guys’ minds, and that was: Damn, I wish I had been in that theater with my gun.

Do you think you could have stopped James Holmes?
I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d have kept my head, waited for a clear shot, and taken it. And I believe that whether I hit him or not, I’d have upset his rhythm. Again and again these mass shooters kill themselves when the police show up. (Though not Holmes. He simply seemed to run out of enthusiasm.) Adam Lanza, Seung Hui-Cho, the Columbine shooters.... They don’t want a gunfight. They want to kill a lot of people. So I like to think that, if Holmes had seen a muzzle flash, it would have at least made him pause. In any case, I don’t see that things could have been worse with someone shooting at him.

You talked to a lot of angry gun guys on your trip. What were they so upset about?
The bulge of the gun-guy demographic is middle-aged, straight, white men who have not finished college. That’s a demographic that has really suffered in the past 30 years. They haven’t had a wage increase since 1978.

You write that these guys have had “their livers pecked out while women, immigrants, blacks, and gays all seemed to have become groovier, sexier, and more dynamic players in American culture.” Do guns make these guys feel powerful and important again?
There are two things. One is: the NRA comes along and says to them, “You’re angry because the liberals want to take away your guns.” The other is: living alongside firearms is a big self-esteem builder. You feel good about being somebody who is capable and clear-headed and skilled enough to be around these incredibly dangerous things, and maybe even carry one, without anyone getting hurt.

There’s an interesting scene when you visit the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. You’re getting a tour from a guy in the NRA’s education and training division, and you prod him to tell you why he loves guns—and he gives you a very direct answer.
When you talk to gun guys, they talk about how, oh, guns are like cameras—they’re these beautiful devices. But there’s no denying that there’s a death element to gun fascination, and I really hadn’t heard that from anyone. So I go to the NRA toward the end of the book. I find this one guy who I like. And I say, Come on, man, this is all about death. I thought he was going to deny it, but he goes, Yeah, this is about death. And it is. I mean, to be a gun guy—not just to carry a gun but to be around guns—it’s the same kind of thing that skydivers have, or free climbers. You’re getting this little contact high from the Grim Reaper.

Let’s talk about the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which, as you know, is the type of weapon Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook and Holmes used in Aurora. You start the book with it. The first time you go to a gun range, you take a rifle made in 1900 for the Spanish-American War, and you find that you’re the only guy who has an old gun. Everyone else is shooting black AR-15’s. What did you discover about the appeal of this weapon?
It’s portrayed now, post–Sandy Hook, as some kind of bizarre outlier to the gun world. Who needs an AR-15? Why would any hunter or any decent person want an AR-15? It turns out—and this was a surprise to me—that the AR-15 is the whole gun business. It’s all anyone wants anymore. It’s all you see at rifle ranges. Half the guns in a gun store will be AR-15’s. Why? Because they are incredible rifles. There’s very little recoil, thanks to a big spring in the butt. It’s very accurate. But more than that, it’s modular. It all comes apart, so you can endlessly swap out pieces. New stock, new pistol grip. You can even change the caliber, in seconds, just by snapping pieces on and off. There is a bottomless universe of shit you can buy for your gun.

You write that attempts to ban the AR-15 are “stupid.”

But if I wanted to ban the AR-15, I’d use your reporting to make the case. You write: “My own rifle punched me like a prize-fighter, and to fire a second shot, I had to throw a heavy bolt lever up and back, forward and down. With this gun, I barely brushed the trigger, as gently as flicking crumbs off a tablecloth. ... It was effortless, like shooting a ray gun. ... Imagine a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.” It really does seem like a fundamentally distinct class of weapon. Why is it stupid to want to ban something that puts tremendous lethal firepower in the hands of inexperienced shooters?
For one thing, there are gazillions of them already out there, so unless we do a house-to-house search, we’re still going to be living with these things. As for why anyone needs an AR-15, that’s not a question we ask in any other context. We don’t ask why anybody needs an eight-cylinder SUV or a 6,000-square-foot house. And I would argue that the SUV and the house may be limiting our human future more than the AR-15. If you look at FBI statistics, these guns are used in about 3 percent of killings a year. If you really want to do something to make us safer, ban handguns. Which I think would be nuts.

What about a ban on high-capacity magazines?
I’ll send you a YouTube video of a guy changing a magazine in a second. One second.

Sure, but Jared Loughner—the Tucson shooter who killed six and injured 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—fired 31 bullets in 15 seconds from his Glock. There were 33 rounds. Lanza fired about 150 rounds from his AR-15 in just a few minutes. Police got to the Aurora movie theater within 90 seconds of the start of Holmes’ rampage, and by that time he’d already killed 12 and wounded 58. It seems like introducing even a minor inconvenience could save lives.
My first book was about the politics of the drug war, so I have an instinctive prejudice against bans. I think banning things that lots of people want is bad policy. It produces the opposite effect of what you want. It’s caustic to people’s respect for the rule of law. And it’s undemocratic. People who talk about banning the AR-15 and banning large-capacity magazines are rooted in unreality. A lot of this impulse to ban is seizing an opportunity to stick it to the other tribe, and I really hate that.

One issue I have is that, when you talk about the flip side of gun love, your sensitivity and nuance go out the window. You seem to think that people who don’t love guns are just snobs. I kept waiting for a moment when you’d acknowledge that those who want tighter gun laws might be genuinely concerned about gun violence. But that moment never came. You put “epidemic of gun violence” in scare quotes, like it’s something that’s been invented to tar gun owners.
Violent crime is half of what it was 20 years ago. We have done an incredible job in this country. It is an unalloyed piece of good news. It is a public-policy victory. And I devote three of 18 chapters to the dark side of guns—a young man murdered, another disabled, and a chapter about a former gangbanger who killed a man.

We’ve still got the highest rate of gun homicide in the advanced world. We still have 30,000 firearm-related deaths every year. Five hundred murders last year in Chicago, and 331 in the city where I report, Philadelphia.
Chicago, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Yeah, but as David Frum has pointed out, there’s not a wall around Chicago. Guns can come into Chicago from other places. There are other problems. Suicide. Teens who try to kill themselves with guns tend to succeed, as you point out in the book.
That is bad. That is definitely bad. Look. Going back to your question about the motives of the gun-control people—

I can tell you that, personally, the reason I don’t want to be around guns isn’t that I have some pathological aversion to them as objects. It’s that I think they’re dangerous. I have a four-year-old daughter. If I had been out with her and had seen you open-carrying your handgun in Whole Foods, my impulse would have been to come up and tap you on the shoulder and ask what the fuck was wrong with you.
It’s well and good to say I have a four-year-old daughter and I live in Philadelphia and I don’t want anything to do with guns. But, forgive me, it’s a little bit like saying I don’t want anything to do with gravity. I mean, the country is full of guns. We can’t do away with air crashes by repealing gravity. The gun-control side—and this has been especially true since Sandy Hook—has been depending on an emotional argument. You just made, really, an emotional argument.

I could cite statistics. Studies show that more guns equal more homicides, across all sorts of metrics.
Private firearm ownership per capita in the United States has gone up tremendously in the past 20 years. Gun laws have generally gotten looser everywhere in the past 20 years. And gun murders have fallen by half. So I don’t know why you say more guns equals more homicide.

Those are the findings of David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Places with more guns have higher rates of homicide.
David Hemenway, frankly, is a partisan on this issue. As is Gary Kleck on the other side. These guys have an agenda. I don’t trust them. But it’s Hemenway who has found that guns are used to save lives 80,000 times a year, which means guns may be saving more lives than they’re taking.

In one chapter, you quote a lawyer at the Goldwater Institute who makes an argument I’ve seen a lot: that the Second Amendment exists in part to let citizens arm themselves as a “bulwark against tyranny.” He’s talking about doing battle against the U.S. government if necessary. Do you think that’s a valid point?
I don’t believe we’ll get to the place where we have to take our rifles out of the closet and overthrow a tyrannical government. But I do think that the widespread private ownership of guns bespeaks a relationship between the government and the people that is unique and that I like. I’ve lived and worked all over the world, in countries where the only people with guns are the military and the police. I don’t like it. And I’m not sure most Americans would like it.

Your other views are so progressive, though. To be a progressive, you have to believe that the world can be improved. But it seems like, at the heart of so much Second Amendment absolutism, there is this dark vision of inevitable, lawless decay. Like: The world is screwed. You may as well start burying AR-15’s in your yard.
No, no, no. It’s not that.

Am I misunderstanding?
Yeah, I think you are. There are definitely a lot of gun guys who feel that way. You know, when they make the argument—like Aaron Zelman’s genocide argument, that gun control precedes genocide—

Aaron Zelman. This is the late head of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. He wrote a book called Death by “Gun Control,” arguing that gun laws led not just to the Holocaust but also to eight other genocides.
I was born in 1956. You were probably born in the '70s? We’ve lived in a pretty good era in the United States. But in our lifetimes, people wearing Gap and Benetton clothing were lined up in front of pits and shot for being who they were. This happened during our adulthood. And these were not savage Africans. These were Europeans! These were white folks, wearing the kinds of clothes we wear, and carrying the kinds of consumer products we carry. They were lined up and shot, for being who they were, in Bosnia.

Sorry: savage Africans?
Well, you know, when it happens in Africa, I think we all have a tendency to go, well, it’s Africa, right? But this happened in Europe. We’re not talking about the Nazis. We’re talking about the '90s. So I cannot completely dismiss Zelman’s argument. I also lost half my family in the Holocaust. And I do kind of share his sense of wonder that the vanguard of the gun-control movement in this country are the Jews.

You talk about being a progressive. I’ve been appalled at how my fellow quote-unquote progressives have this sudden, newfound adoration of police power. I mean, hello? We used to oppose excessive police power. We used to be all about civil liberties. And now you’ve got “progressives” talking about confiscating people’s property.

Who’s talking about confiscation?
Andrew Cuomo. Under New York’s SAFE Act—passed under “emergency” conditions, so that legislators got only 20 minutes to read the bill—assault rifles and magazines have to be taken out of the state in 90 days or surrendered. A similar law is being debated in Missouri and Colorado.

You say it’s an admirable thing that we give ordinary people this level of trust with firearms. And many of the people you meet in your reporting are model gun owners. But what about all the guys on a site like, who post psychopathic rants about the United Nations?
Oh yeah, they’re scary.

And what about the kid you encounter who’s shooting into a rock face and the bullet’s pinging back at him? Doesn’t the easy availability of guns in America ensure that many people who shouldn’t have them will have them? You don’t engage with these people.
I take exception to the idea that all the people in my book are responsible gun owners. I really did try to represent the knuckleheads and the malevolent, too. Brandon Franklin, a 22-year-old I knew from my reporting days in New Orleans, gets murdered. And I interviewed a guy who killed a guy. A gangbanger. So they’re not all good guys, for one thing. But as the guy at the Goldwater Institute put it: we are a big, messy, polyglot country with a tremendous amount of freedom. A certain amount of bad shit is going to happen.

You argue that if Democrats try to tighten gun laws, they’ll only alienate voters who could help them accomplish other things that you believe in—action on climate change, income inequality, and immigration reform. Newtown seems to have changed this calculus, though. Has it changed your views about gun control?
No. I think Joe Biden, whom I love, is making mistakes here. The gun-control side is underestimating the force of the reaction they’re in for.

Mass shootings only appear tangentially in the body of your book. The Fort Hood shooting, Virginia Tech, the Wisconsin Sikh temple—they come up in the postscript, but that was written after Aurora and Newtown. Why didn’t you feel the need to address them?
They’re very rare. They seem like they happen all the time, but a statistically insignificant number of Americans die in these events.

Nine hundred people in the past seven years, according to USA Today.
Yeah. Which is a lot of people. No question. I and probably a lot of other gun guys believe that if somebody wants to do it, they’re going to do it. We can tinker with the gun laws all we want, but Timothy McVeigh did not use a gun, and he killed more people in his single act than any of these shooters.

You seem to despair in the book about the two sides coming to any kind of agreement. They’re too far apart.
Yes, and if I’m harder on the progressives, it’s because I think they’re largely responsible for this. It’s because of their sanctimonious, self-congratulatory sense of superiority to the gun people, and their desire to win a tribal point by smashing the idol of their opposing worldview. They drive gun guys into a defensive crouch.

You’ve laid out what progressives can do: listen to gun guys, respect their views. What can gun guys do?
Gun guys have to lock up their fucking guns. Much of the bad shit that happens in this country with guns happens because some honest person who bought a gun legally in a gun store left it unlocked. Thieves get them, and then they go into criminal hands. Kids find them, depressed teenagers find them. Adam Lanza found his mother’s guns unlocked. I think gun guys need to pull up their big-boy pants. And if they won’t, then we need to have laws that impose criminal penalties if something bad happens with your gun.

You also support universal background checks.
And putting them online, where we can all get them.

Did the road trip change any of your other, non-gun-related political views? Are you still an Obama supporter?
Oh yeah. I’m no less a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. I’m a big Obama guy. But I must say, I do understand now the sense that we are all overmanaged and underrespected as citizens. I think we have lost a tremendous amount of individual agency in this country. The abhorrence on the part of the left that an armed citizen might have been useful at Sandy Hook or Aurora seems rooted in this instinctive liberal horror that any individual could be vigorous and capable and independent-minded enough to do something that dramatic. To actually intervene in a situation like that. And as somebody who instinctively cares more about the collective than the individual, I think we’re misguided there. I think the collective is better served by vigorous and capable individuals in the same way a machine works better with higher-quality parts.

You’re trying to speak to both sides in a debate where there really aren’t a lot of centrists. There’s a gap in the middle.
People will hate this book on both sides. When I think about what The New York Times is going to do, if they review it at all, I pucker up. I mean, Terry Gross isn’t going to have me on. We’ll see. Both sides are the fucking Taliban. It’ll either be a huge hit or I’ll go get a job.

Jason Fagone is a contributing editor at Wired and Philadelphia. His book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America will be published by Crown in November.

Dan Baum has been a staff writer for
The New Yorker and has written for Harper’s, Wired, and many other magazines. He’s the author of several books, including Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans.

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