Nonfiction

Packing a gun while touring armed America

 

Guns are a hot political topic now. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, almost everyone has one of two views on firearms. Guns, like abortion, are seen by some as a life-or-death issue that merits careful regulation, and by others as a matter of personal freedom and constitutional right. Each camp makes little attempt to understand the other, much less to compromise.

That could soon change, as the gun issue is about to find a new ambassador in Dan Baum. A self-professed “gun guy,” the former New Yorker staff writer is far from a stereotypical gun nut. He’s an urban Jew whose liberal views on everything but guns align with those who abhor firearms the most.

Yet something about shooting rifles at summer camp in 1961 captured his fancy and never let go. Even when his friends outgrew GI Joe and war games, Baum didn’t. As an adult, he took up hunting as a way to legitimize his gun hobby.

All of this makes him the perfect tour guide for a well-timed trek through gun culture in modern America. A surprisingly funny book, Gun Guys: A Road Trip is an insightful exploration that brings some much-needed humanity to gun lovers and gun haters.

Over 18 months, Baum travels to gun shows, a Hollywood armory and various shooting competitions. He visits the headquarters of the National Rifle Association and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Thanks to an app on his iPod Touch called Gun Store Finder, he visits every arms peddler along the way. He goes pig hunting in Texas. He meets a criminal turned firearms safety instructor, a gunshot victim and a machine gun collector, among others.

Certain characters veer depressingly close to the stereotypes that Baum initially hopes to debunk. He meets a man in his 20s who wrote in Sarah Palin on his 2008 ballot, for example, because he didn’t trust John McCain on guns. A video game habit as a teenager first introduces him to the AR-15. Though deeply in debt and still living with his parents, the college dropout plunks down $3,500 on a real-life gun, scope and other accessories. Soon he’s hooked.

Other characters, however, more than defy the stereotypes. The most adamant gun rights activist that Baum encounters, for example, is a Midwestern Jew who doesn’t seem to particularly like guns.

Baum further explores gun culture by diving into it himself. In one humorous scene, he tests the “open carry” law by holstering a long, bulky revolver in plain view and then padding around a Whole Foods store in his hometown of Boulder, Colo.

Eventually, he obtains a concealed carry permit and begins wearing a gun, hidden under his clothing, everywhere he goes. He conjures a quaint theory to explain the skyrocketing numbers of concealed handgun licenses in the United States even as crime continues to fall: They’re a way for law-abiding folks like Baum to play with their guns whenever they want. “Imagine a musician,” he writes, “who got to touch a guitar for one week a year.”

But to Baum, a gun’s power to kill remains as troubling as it does thrilling. “I didn’t have to go far to learn about the nation’s conflicted attitude toward guns,” he writes. “I could just tour the inside of my own skull.”

In New Orleans, one of the few places he is comforted by the bulky revolver pressing into his kidney, he still feels conflicted: “Even if it made me feel safer, it made me lonely,” he writes.

“The gun had lowered a screen between me and the people I loved. It made me careful how I hugged. It made it hard to take off my jacket in a hot restaurant. It made me feel like a traitor to all that New Orleanians were trying to accomplish. The thought of having to send more bullets whizzing through its fragrant, damp air was almost unbearable.”

Baum is forced to confront the real and sober connection between guns and death when a 22-year-old friend, featured in Nine Lives, Baum’s earlier book about post-Katrina New Orleans, is shot and killed in a domestic dispute.

If Baum never makes the appeal of guns universally clear, he does come across some compelling possible explanations. A man whose job it is to handle guns on Hollywood movie sets, for example, suggests that guns fit into the American narrative, appealing to our love of equality by giving the small and weak a chance against the big and strong.

A manufacturing entrepreneur convinces Baum that “enshrining an armed citizenry into a country’s founding document did seem to imply a rather extraordinary amount of trust in ordinary people.”

Gun Guys is a thoughtful, well-reasoned antidote to the polarized hysteria that currently passes for a national gun debate. By the end of the book, Baum arrives at something that feels truly fresh: a middle ground on guns.

Lily Raff McCaulou reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">THE BOOK OF LIFE.</span> Deborah Harkness. Viking. 559 pages. $28.95.

    Fantasy

    Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion

    A witch in love with a vampire comes into her full powers in the final satisfying installment of the All Souls trilogy.

  •  
 <span class="bold">Courtney Maum</span>

    What are you reading now?

    “I’m reading Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man. Several years ago, I applied for a scholarship at the Can Serrat residency program in Spain and got a letter back saying that the stipend had gone to a writer named Brando Skyhorse. I remember pacing around the house yelling, ‘Who the hell is this Brando Skyhorse?!’ I’ve calmed down in the years since and am glad that the scholarship went to a writer as fearless and funny as Skyhorse. The things his mother put him through as a child could have destroyed a man’s integrity, but Skyhorse saved himself through writing, and in that, he is a role model for me.”

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">A MOST IMPERFECT UNION: </span>A Contrarian History of the United States. Ilan Stavans. Illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz. Basic. 269 pages. $26.99.

    History

    Collaboration takes a more colorful look at U.S. history

    A New England college professor and a California cartoonist collaborate on a colorful look at our storied past.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category