4/18/2013 - In his fully loaded romp through gun-loving America, Dan Baum seeks to answer a question: What is he, a northern Jewish liberal, doing on the same side of an issue as the dreaded Red Staters?
It’s a question Baum never fully answers to the reader’s satisfaction, but his existential road trip through gun shops and shooting ranges produced a smart and lively read. Gun Guys is, well, a blast, not only for those who consider the Second Amendment the most beautiful words in the Constitution, but for those who can’t even fire a water pistol with precision. It’s also an education for those who don’t know an AR-15 from a MAC-10, and a somewhat unsettling reminder of how many people you pass on the street may be packing heat.
Baum opens with a description of his “personal Big Bang” — the moment that he, “a pudgy, overmothered cherub amid a tribe of lean savages” at summer camp, shot his first rifle, hitting 36 out of 50. “Nice shootin’ Tex,” Hank, the camp counselor, tells him, and from that shining second of competence streaked an obsession that’s only recently abated.
From play-shooting with adolescent friends to teaching himself to hunt deer in his 30s, Baum indulged cautiously in his passion, ever mindful that guns were as popular as Rush Limbaugh in the circles in which he ran. “By the time I was a voting adult, I’d begun to perceive the gun lover in me as some kind of malevolent twin,” he writes. The National Rifle Association, he says, “sometimes seemed like the armed wing of the Republican Party.”
“The diatribes of the gun-rights movement often came wrapped in appeals to limit government, deport immigrants, cut taxes and elect conservatives — everything I opposed,” Baum writes.
When, trying to explain the dichotomy, he ventures into this dangerously alien territory, Baum dons an NRA cap and carries a gun in a holster. But his willingness to merge ideologies stops as soon as anyone bemoans “the out-of-control crime rate,” as the gun guys repeatedly do. This is wrong: Despite the horror of Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., violent crime in America is on the decline. “Depending on how you did the math, 1989 to 2010 may have seen the fastest and steepest drop in crime ever recorded in the United States,” Baum writes. The national murder rate is down, as is rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Yet Baum repeatedly hears people warbling what he calls the “gun-guy liturgy” — “crime is out of control!”
He deals with it by holding up his hand, like a police officer directing traffic, and saying, “Spare me. Let’s talk about guns.” And therein he finds common ground.
He finds it with the 20something still living at home so he can afford his $3,500 AR-15 and his shooting-range habit; with the “gentle” anesthesiologist moonlighting as an NRA shooting instructor; with the retired beef farmer turned gun collector. For 277 pages, Baum explores the gun owners who don’t make the headlines, the ones who own and carry out of fascination, even reverence, and those who believe they have the right not only to defend their homes and family but to play with the toys of their choosing.
A veteran journalist, Baum is the author of three other books and a former writer for The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. His narrative is flawless and persistently droll. A gunmaker near Phoenix has an accent “so Brooklynese I could practically smell the pickles;” a feral pig smells like a “musk-and-feces milkshake;” and a trio of gun guys in black hoodies look like “a band of Jawas en route to capture R2-D2.” Regardless of where you stand on guns, Gun Guys is a pleasure to read.
Unfortunately, the pleasure goes on a little too long. The book’s density may dissuade some readers; for a memoir, it seems a little too indifferent about the reader’s free time. But all is forgiven by the punchy ending, and the obligatory postscript about Sandy Hook is appropriate, sober and short. Amiable, intelligent and funny, Gun Guys is like your favorite high-school teacher, the one who makes you laugh, all the while sneakily making you smarter. And for anyone who purports to be up on gun issues, it’s required reading. B+