Books / Firearms

Review of Dan Baum’s Book Gun Guys: A Road Trip (2013)

In a previous post, I was critical of some things that Dan Baum wrote in the Wall Street Journal in an editorial promotion for his then forthcoming book, Gun Guys.

I have now had a chance to read the book, and I have to say it is much better than the editorial (which draws on parts of the book but more specifically on the book’s post-Sandy Hook written postscript).

Gun Guys cover

Baum is a self-professed liberal, with solid bona fides like serving as a staff writer for The New Yorker. The book is motivated by the cognitive dissonance Baum has felt as a liberal who likes guns. He wants to explore why he likes guns, and to take his fellow liberals to task for their illiberal perspectives on guns. For example, he observes that liberals who would never think of saying “n****r” or “fag” routinely use offensive language like “gun loon” to describe gun owners (p. 9).

He also recalls writing an article for Men’s Journal magazine about the Wikieup machine gun shoot, but “for the first time in my twenty-five-year career had an article killed for explicitly political reasons.” What was the reason? “It’s not anti-gun enough,” the editor told him, to satisfy Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who also publishes Men’s Journal (p. 90).

But the reality is, in Baum’s words, “The overwhelming majority of gun owners didn’t show up in crime statistics, weren’t players in gun policy, didn’t hang out on the Internet’s vitriolic gun forums, and didn’t physically threaten anybody” (p. 10). What attracts and connects these people to guns? Baum is at his best when he is answering this question through stories based on his observations of gun culture. To the extent that he does this well, Gun Guys is a very good book that gun guys themselves can enjoy. But it is a must read for those who are not a part of and cannot understand gun culture. Especially those who can’t understand gun culture. When people ask me “why do people like guns,” I now have a book length response.

Baum also addresses many more specific variants of that general question:

  • Why do people like AR-15 style rifles? Baum calls these “The iGun” and highlights the many ways that they are fun and easy to shoot, and endlessly customizable. “Barbie for men” (p. 24) (Chapter 1 and Chapter 3).
  • Why would anyone want a silencer? Because they make shooting safer and more comfortable (Chapter 2).
  • Why would anyone want a machine gun? Because they are fun. As Baum writes, “Choose the most adamant anti-gun peacenik you know and give him a tommy gun to shoot at a stick of dynamite. Then strap him to a polygraph and ask him if it was fun” (p. 78). Fully automatic weapons are also technologically and historically fascinating (Chapter 4).
  • Why would anyone want to carry a concealed handgun? Chapter 9 tells the story of Rick Ector, who was held up at gun point in his driveway in his hometown of Detroit and decided that night to get a concealed weapon permit. When he was reporting the robbery to a Detroit police detective he asked what he needed to do to buy a handgun. He was told: “You don’t want to do that. . . . We got enough people running around with guns. You don’t want to be part of the problem. Leave it to the professionals. . . . The police.” To which Ector responded, “Where were you when that nineteen-year-old punk-ass was making up his sweet mind whether to leave my babies fatherless?” He concluded, “No, man, I’m serious. You can’t protect me” (pp. 138-39). As the old saw goes, when seconds matter, help is just minutes away (p. 99). Baum also correctly points out that most concealed weapon permit holds realize that they will probably never have to use their weapon in self-defense, but see it as a type of preventative measure like wearing a seat belt or keeping a fire extinguisher in the home (Chapter 2). Like insurance, it is something that you have that you hope you never have to use, but if you have to use it, you are damn glad you have it.
  • Why would anyone want to hunt, and why would anyone hunt with an “assault rifle”? Baum opens Chapter 5 by quoting Bill Clinton: “You don’t need an Uzi to go deer hunting, and everybody knows it.” And John Kerry: “When I go out there and hunt, I’m going out there with a twelve-gauge shotgun, not an assault weapon.” Which, if he is to be taken seriously at all, makes John Kerry a “Fudd” (pp. 81-82) – the derogatory name in gun culture for those whose main attachment to guns is through hunting and who don’t care about the gun rights of non-hunting gun owners. (“Fudd” comes from the bungling hunter Elmer in the Looney Toons cartoons). He characterizes hunting as “a brief and tiny taste of what it means to be a link on the food chain” (p. 88), and describes “the solemnity of the harvest” (p. 89). Several chapters later (in Chapter 15, “Hogzilla”), Baum describes hunting for feral hogs in Texas. A year-round hunting season, no bag limit, no restrictions on time of day or type of gun that can be used. Why would anyone want to hunt with a modern sporting rifle with a 30-round magazine? Because there are “as many as a million and a  half feral hogs rampaging through Texas, growing as big as sofas, tearing up farmland and creek bottoms with their root-rooting snouts.” Among other problems they cause.

Baum’s story is not all positive, however. He does cover topics like criminal use of guns, “the armed bonehead,” and other stupid things people do with guns. He also tries to explain to his liberal self and his liberal readers why gun guys are so angry and always preparing for disaster. This part of the book reminded me of another liberal author’s attempt to understand his “bitter clinger” kin: Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus.

For the person who doesn’t know gun culture, all the negative stuff is already established in their imaginations. Hence, the main contribution of this book is to help those who simply and honestly do not know about guns – the he broad and deep middle between the extremes of gun culture and anti-gun culture – to understand what the attraction is.

Among Baum’s other random but thoughtful observations:

  • “I’d forgotten that a lot of gun guys are like the Taliban: Either you agree with them about absolutely everything or you’re Satan” (p. 154). How do you define a lot? I would have written some to be truthful.
  • “What I’d discovered during my gun guy walkabout was that warriors walked among us, on our own soil and out of uniform. Not every gun guy was a warrior. Not even every person who’d obtained a concealed-carry permit was necessarily a warrior. But while I met relatively few of the six million Americans who’d done so, every one I encountered was serious about the undertaking. They’d decided, on some level, to be one of society’s warriors” (p. 254).
  • “Although the NRA had never been bigger or richer than it was in 2010, it was, for all its bluster, a middling player by Washington standards. . . . NRA contributions to congressional candidates were about half that of the pipefitters’ union – and when was the last time politicians cowered before the pipe fitters?” (p. 262).
  • “Guns may have been fun, useful, nostalgia-inducing, and mechanically intriguing, but in the America I was touring, they also stood for a worldview that, broadly defined, valued the individual over the collective” (p. 264).
  • “If what most concerned the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence was gun violence, [legal director Dennis] Henigan should have been taking a victory lap. . . . One could logically argue that if the Brady Center’s goal was to reduce gun violence, perhaps the thing to do was declare victory and close up shop” (p. 265).
  • “How about this for a bumper sticker, borrowing a phrase from the abortion-rights movement: DON’T LIKE GUNS? DON’T HAVE ONE” (p. 272).
  • “Carrying a gun is a skill and a privilege I value, even if I don’t exercise it daily. I am fully aware that there’s almost no chance I will ever need my gun. . . . But circumstances change. I may find myself traveling to a high-crime city that honors my permit. I might start getting death threats from an angry reader. Violent crime could spike again. After carrying for a year, having the skill and legal right to keep a gun in my pocket feels little more ridiculous than keeping a health insurance card in my wallet or a fire extinguisher in my kitchen” (p. 276).“Banning things that a lot of Americans want – from alcohol to marijuana to guns – has never worked well for long” (p. 280).
  • “The non-gun public fears concealed carry. Gun owners should be leaders in making the practice safer, more effective, and easier for our neighbors to accept” (p. 282). Of course, what was the evidence to suggest that it is not safe and effective? I think emphasis here is on how to make it more acceptable to neighbors.
  • “If gun culture is to survive, gun guys will have to get in the game. If we want to hold onto our guns, we’ll have to be part of the solution, helping to instruct Americans how to live safely alongside 300 million firearms” (p. 283).
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