Boulder writer Dan Baum planned to write a book on guns in America which would be “apolitical, nonpolemical cultural anthropology, played sometimes for laughs.” But his timing was bad. His book, Gun Guys: A Road Trip, was published in the middle of a volatile national yelling match after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Baum is a lifelong liberal Democrat who supports single payer healthcare, strong environmental protection, reproductive freedom, unions, stiff financial regulation, and peace over war. He also loves guns — which puts him at odds with his wife, daughter and friends.
“I was a gun guy,” he writes, “but I didn’t belong to gun culture, and I didn’t know much about how guns fit into people’s lives.”
He worked hard to elect Barack Obama president. Many other gun owners freaked out about Obama and bought up lots of guns and ammunition.
Baum began to research the subject and discovered that nobody was listening to the average gun owner. Only 4 percent of gun owners are members of the NRA. He notes: “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. A lot of assumptions were made about gun people — by the NRA and Fox News on one side and by the editorial board of The New York Times and a slew of Democratic politicians on the other.”
He drove across the country, chatting with gun owners about why guns were important to them. To prepare himself, he decided to bike around Boulder with his 1917 Smith and Wesson revolver (“an antique Army pistol the size of a trumpet”). His wife was shocked as he went out the door — exclaiming “For Christ’s sake!” — and warned him not to get killed, arrested or cause a riot.
He visited Home Depot, Target, the Apple Store and Whole Foods. There wasn’t any reaction at all. Maybe “a balding, middle-aged man in scratchy pants and glasses” wasn’t a frightening sight even if he carried a big gun.
Maybe people thought he was a cop. Then he went to a Mexican grocery to buy tortillas and many people peered at him and whispered to each other.
He didn’t repeat the experiment. “Wearing a visible gun made me feel obnoxious,” he says.
In his travels, Baum interviewed the Hollywood folks who furnish the guns (mostly rubber) in TV shows and films. He fired a machinegun at a stick of dynamite in Arizona and killed a dozen wild pigs in Texas. He describes the sad life of a man disabled by a bullet and talks with a black Detroit autoworker who teaches armed self-defense after suffering a robbery.
He doesn’t think that gun control laws have done much good. He says gun laws have gotten looser while gun violence has gone down. In his book, he suggests some laws that he feels would be helpful. However, when I talked with him recently, he was skeptical about those suggestions.
He says, “You shouldn’t pass laws that people aren’t going to obey. Gun control only tinkers with what happens in gun stores in the future when you can easily get a gun without going to a gun store. We should be worried about the 300 million guns which are out there right now.”
Baum argues that gun control advocates should “make friends” with gun owners. He feels he should have focused more on social class in his book. He says, “according to firearms industry statistics, the people who buy most of the guns are middle-aged white men who haven’t finished college. That demographic has been particularly screwed in the past 30 years both economically and culturally. But to talk about your circumstances as part of a class is forbidden in this society. All they know is, they’re pissed. The only ones giving them a voice is the NRA who whispers in their ears, ‘The liberals want to take away your guns.’ They get a lot of pride and self-esteem from having those guns.”
It’s time to end the culture war over guns and have a sensible discussion without the name-calling and posturing on both sides.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.