A Liberal With a Gun

Dan Baum, author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, 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

    Photo: Dino Osmic/Shutterstock

Gun Guys: A Road Trip.

Dan Baum.

"It’s the same kind of thing that skydivers have. You’re getting this little contact high from the Grim Reaper."

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.
Yeah.

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.”
Yes.

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 AR15.com, 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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