Published March 10. 2013 4:00AM
Dan Baum has an agenda. He wants you to listen to the guys who like guns, particularly if you are an NPR-listening, Whole Foods-shopping progressive.
That's how you could describe Baum, a former New Yorker staff writer and lefty down the line except for his love of rifles, revolvers and the rest.
Baum is bringing his weaponry out of the closet in "Gun Guys: A Road Trip." In the book, he travels the country to meet some of America's 70 million to 80 million gun owners, talking to collectors and hunters, people concerned with self-defense and those who take pleasure in the skill of shooting. He gets a permit to carry a concealed weapon and explains the frisson, part power and part threat, of passing through daily life secretly armed.
His book arrives at an opportune moment. After highly publicized incidents of gun violence like the killing of six adults and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, gun control again becomes a topic of heated public debate.
"Both camps have driven each other so far apart that we can't talk about this stuff rationally, because it's tribal," says Baum.
Yet he tends to lay the blame at the feet of his liberal cohorts.
"The anti-gun tribe thinks it can weaken the gun tribe by attacking the totem. By banning it, by making it invisible, by paring it down as much as it can," he says.
With one foot in each camp, Baum sees himself as uniquely positioned to explain gun-lovers to gun-haters. "I just want people, when they think about these questions, to have listened to rational, calm, intelligent voices that they might not otherwise have encountered," he says. It is an eclectic lineup: a Texas pig hunter, a wealthy collector, a Hollywood gun prop house and the man who founded Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.
While his interviewees provide an interesting narrative, the most enlightening element of the book may be its explanation of some of the basics of contemporary gun ownership.
Many gun-control advocates suggest banning assault rifles; Baum points out that the most popular gun in America today is the Bushmaster AR-15: It's modular, highly customizable, lightweight and easy to shoot.
"It's the only gun anybody wants," Baum says. "Far from being some kind of bizarre anomaly of the gun business, it is the absolute heart of the gun business: the most popular gun and the most profitable gun. So if you're wondering why even Barack Obama has backed off from the assault-rifle ban, that's why.
Baum's own love affair with guns began at age 5; at summer camp he discovered he had a natural aptitude for target shooting. He was attracted to the physicality of guns and charmed by the James Bond mythology he associated with them.
But in his liberal suburb, the late '60s brought a schism between the weapons and his world. "I was against the (Vietnam) war too, and aspired to the hippie aesthetic as much as any other sixth-grader," he writes. "But that didn't keep me from liking guns. To me, they were separate."
This separation between guns and violence is an essential part of Baum's world view. As he details the way guns make him feel, one thing becomes clear: He finds power in carrying but not using a weapon.
"Gun guys derive a tremendous amount of self-esteem from being able to live alongside these incredibly dangerous things without anybody getting hurt," he says.
The juxtaposition of the lethal potential of guns with the feeling of power they impart is apparent in the story of Brandon Franklin, a promising young man Baum had met in New Orleans while working on "Nine Lives."A few years later, when Baum was working on "Gun Guys," Franklin was murdered during a dispute with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend. Brandon had not been carrying a gun; the other man had.
"The unknowable that really tortured me," Baum writes, "was this: if Brandon had been formally inducted into the sheepdog cadre and had had a legal gun concealed on his person. ... Might the gun have saved his life without ever being drawn?"
The inverse is the other side of the debate: Wouldn't his life have been saved if his murderer hadn't carried one at all?