Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: 'Gun Guys' by Dan Baum (2013)

It's a somewhat entertaining look at what exactly America's "gun culture" resembles ... and, for the most part, it ain't a pretty sight. 

By: Jimbo X

"To suppose arms in the hands of citizens may be used at individual discretion in private self defense, or by partial orders of town, counties or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government." 

- John Adams
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Chapter Third: Marchamont Nedham, Errors of Government and Rules of Policy (1787)

"The gun rights movement was equally mired in the language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest - and poorly serving its constituents. In its incessant whining about the gun grabbers and the liberals, in its obsessive nurturing of inchoate anger and in its all or nothing worldview, the NRA and the rest of the organized gun-rights movement was likewise punching below its weight."

- Dan Baum
Gun Guys: A Road Trip (2013)

When you’ve been in the game as long as I have, you begin to realize some great, Freakanomics-esque truths about the world. For example, I’ve come to discover that a considerably large percentage of morbidly obese people – for psychological and sociological reasons I still can’t determine – absolutely refuse to drink any kind of soda that isn’t diet. Furthermore, I've come to learn that while virtually all white liberals absolutely abhor the use of racial epitaphs, they also seem suspiciously quick to use skin-hue-based slurs and insults to describe individuals of color who support conservative ideologies (and subsequently, feel no remorse or P.C guilt about their ironically bigoted comments, either.) Adding to that, I've come to find out that while white nationalists tend to foster a strong dislike for most non-Caucasian ethnic groups, a large portion of the populace also seems to really admire and appreciate Asian culture, to the point that many vaunt the Japanese and Korean as ethnic groups superior to their own

Which brings me to Dan Baum's 2013 tome Gun Guys, which from the get-go, reinforces a long-held assumption I've had about American firearm enthusiasts: the bulk of them - pun, somewhat intended - are all out of shape slobs who utterly despise athletics, sports and exercise in general. 

Oh, I've no doubt seen this time and time again with my own two eyes. Living in the American Deep South (before ye judge, just remember we have the highest concentration of African-Americans in the country, the most interracial marriages and are responsible for a greater share of the national GDP than any other region in the nation), I've been to several gun shows. Hell, I've even attended a few "gun rights" protests, if just for the LOLZ. The thing that has long struck me about the pro-Second Amendment crowd is how very, very few of the ones I've encountered seemed all that ... well, fit. 

It's kind of like that old Nintendo game, Ice Hockey - there's no "normal" body types, just lumbering lard asses that couldn't do five minutes on a treadmill without having a heart attack and really, really scrawny dudes who you could probably snap in half over your knee like a no. 2 pencil. For every buff ex-Marine or former-Navy SEAL I've seen at events of the like, there had to have been at least 30 or 40 dudes whose frames more closely resembled Chris Farley or Pee Wee Herman

This seems to be an entrenched part of what is sometimes referred to as "America's gun culture." Indeed, the two "greatest" works of dystopian pro-gun fiction - The Turner Diaries and Unintended Consequences - both feature long spiels in which the author/narrator expounds upon their hatred of sports. As such, the hypothesis here ought to be pretty clear: maybe the reason all of these "gun nuts" love firearms so much is because they know they are physically weak specimens who would get their asses obliterated in a one-on-one, hand-to-hand fight ... or hell, even a brief foot race, for that matter. 

It's not that Baum implies this early on in Gun Guys. Rather, he just comes out and admits it in the book's preface, describing in rosy detail how laying on pee-pee-soaked mattresses for target practice at summer camp made him feel so much better about being an unathletic klutz at everything else. Indeed, this is a recurring theme Baum rolls out several times throughout the book - at one point, he laments how embarrassed he felt playing "war games" as a tween and how all the girls wanted to date baseball players instead - so I assume he's either subconsciously trying to frame that as an unofficial thesis or else he is really, really bad at doing self-evaluations. As Gun Guys drags along, Baum introduces us to a litany of individuals - multimillionaire hobbyists and Sarah Palin lookalikes and a deluge of ornery (and physically unimposing) gun store owners whose generally unimpressive physiques, cardio and probable inability to engage in unarmed combat more or less validate my long-held hypothesis. The interesting thing there, however, is the Baum didn't set out to paint America's firearm enthusiasts and Second Amendment supporters as fat, slovenly and out-of-shape slobs - rather, the whole intent of the book is to un-demonize the nation's AR-15 and handgun owners, and show that the country's assortment of legally licensed "gun guys" are a much more complex (and diverse) throng of people who unfairly get a bad rap from the liberal-leaning media. 

Dan Baum isn't exactly the kind of person you'd expect to undertake such a venture. For one thing, he's a self-professed democrat who pretty much buys into the whole contemporary lite-socialism party-line on every issue except gun control. Secondly, the longtime Harper's scribe is Jewish, and in case you didn't know ... that's not exactly an ethnic voting bloc known for their unabashed love of the Second Amendment. Regardless, it's pretty obvious where this Baum fellow is on the whole gun-control issue (he's damn, damn, damn opposed to it, obviously), so if you are expecting a nuanced, well-balanced discussion of gun politics in the U.S. - well, best keep a-lookin,' muchacho. 

What does follow, however, is a mixed bag of amusing anecdotes and painfully boring rejected magazine features touching upon the quirky (and sometimes, horrifying) traits and characteristics of NRA America. Some sections are fairly enjoyable and include some interesting tidbits the layman probably isn't aware of, while others are just absolute nap-inducing chores that churn no new ground whatsoever on the national Second Amendment debate. 

After describing himself as your classical "New Jersey Jewish Democrat" and gleefully recounting his piss-soaked exploits at summer camp in 1961, Baum notes how so many of his liberal friends seem to port about an uncritical prejudice against gun owners. "They wouldn't have dreamed of saying 'nigger' or 'fag,' but they laughed at 'gun nuts' or 'gun loons," the author states. Yep, because people are literally born with guns welded to their bodies, and by golly it is wrong to criticize people for things they have no biological control over, like, you know, enjoying shooting guns for recreational purposes. He follows that up with another great quote, this time parroting the words of an forum-goer named Zanther: "I am compensating. If I could kill stuff with my dick from 200 yards, I would not need a firearm, would I?" An excellent choice to sum up the mentality of the modern gun owner, senor Baum, and one that most certainly doesn't posit firearm enthusiasts as a bunch of sexually aggrieved and developmentally arrested wackos with their "kill" and "fuck" instincts curiously cross-wired. 

Next, Baum takes his 110-year-old wooden Krag to the Family Shooting Center in Denver. There, he plays around with an AR-15 and talks shop about optics, describing the add-ons as akin to devices that allow guitar owners to play like Eric Clapton (and by that, he means the scopes make it really, really easy to hit targets.) At the range, Baum meets a teenager who discusses his love of shooters like Call of Duty and the taxpayer-subsidized America's Army, which also contain tons of product placement for gun and ammunition manufacturers. After that, Baum walks into one of those huge, Cabela's-like hunting and fishing stores and contemplates buying his own AR-15. Alas, he decides to keep his wallet closed after another patron warns him about the perils of "the accessory trap" - that being, the overpowering "Barbie for men" compulsion to buy stocks, sights, grips and other mods for their rifles. 

Baum opens the first chapter with a very, very telling quote from Major L. Caudill that reinforces the "fearful, gun-owning slob" hypothesis: "People who argue for the banning of arms ask for automatic rule by the young, the strong and the many, and that's the exact opposite of a civilized society." From there, the author talks about open carry as a public means of normalizing gun ownership, so he decides to start taking his World War I-era pistol with him to Target and Whole Foods. Much to his surprise, however, nobody seems to notice ... or care ... that he's waltzing around the produce aisle packing heat intended to kill the Kaiser. After drudging up the very, very questionable data drummed up by Gary Kleck and David Hemenway regarding the number of "defensive gun use" incidents that go down each year in America, Baum drops another tell-tale quote: "Guys like machines, and guns are machines elevated to high, lethal art" (well, that'll get the purveyors of the "toxic masculinity" hypothesis of gun violence to pipe down, won't it?) 

This leads to Baum enrolling in a gun club class for a concealed weapons carry permit. He describes the lecture as "the church of out of control violence," since the instructor keep yammering on and on about the prevalence of violent crime in the U.S. (despite the empirical data stating the exact opposite) and passing around graphic knife wound photos to scare everybody straight. The passage about who it is that wants carry firearms on their person at all times is pretty interesting, especially the section where Baum notes that an unusually high number of physicians carry firearm permits. Yeah, a lot of it has to do with concerns about being attacked by junkies outside of hospitals, but Baum also notes that at least one gun-toting doctor told him he packs heat because he wants to "manage death" in and out of the ER. Of course, all of this fear-mongering leads Baum to ask if these folks are obsessed with preventing home invasions or secretly praying for them so they can legally blow someone's head off. (And there is much more about this paranoid, "lethal protector" mentality ingrained in U.S. gun culture just a little later, dear reader.) 

Baum then lets us know about all of the regulations and requirements in place for U.S. gun owners, manufacturers and dealers. You've got your standard federal 4473 forms you've got to fill out to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer, then you've got an 11 percent manufacturer excise tax, plus a $200 stamp tax for those who want to own "restricted" higher-power firearms (which, oddly enough, stems from the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which - despite barring most American citizens from owning automatic weapons produced after that year - actually had the NRA's blessing.) As an aside, Baum informs us that - despite their much, much more stringent gun laws - gun silencers are over-the-counter purchases in a majority of European countries, while being category III- restricted paraphernalia in the States. 

Next, Baum takes us to an event out in the wastelands where a bunch of really, really rich dudes take their machine guns and anti-artillery armaments and shoot up barrels and junky old automobiles - in the process, sometimes spending upwards of $4,000 a day on ammunition for their celebration of destruction. "Choose the most adamant anti-gun peacenik you know and give him a tommy gun to shoot at a stick of dynamite," the author writes, "then strap him to a polygraph and ask him if it was fun." Baum then quotes a former ATF agent, who told him he's never known any licensed machine gun owners to commit any kind of violent crime. 

From there, Baum starts going all over the place. He talks about going deer hunting with his wife in Georgia and talks about how a Men's Journal article he wrote was killed for not being "anti-gun" enough for his editor's liking. He recounts feeling guilty about taking a gun to a Buddhist University lecture, further stating "you can project idiocy a long way with a gun." Incidentally, this occurs shortly after the author recounts encountering a bunch of drunk dudes shooting at a rock face while people kayaked below their flying - and ricocheting - bullets.

Now this is where Baum really starts to begin missing the bigger points he accidentally makes. Touching upon young black male gun violence in inner cities - which, as The New York Times told us earlier this year, represents a good three-fourths of all mass shooting deaths in the United States - he travels to New Orleans to speak with those who knew gun violence victim Brandon Franklin. Citing the SCOTUS ruling in Castle Rock v. Gonzalez (which, ostensibly, declared that citizens did not have a constitutional right to police protection), Baum begins talking about a "sheepdog feeling" as he walked around Bourbon Street with a pistol packed in his undies. "Until I started wearing a gun, I'd never thought about my minute-to-minute responsibilities to the strangers around me." Of course, Baum never brings up the notion that maybe the rest of society doesn't want a self-proclaimed vigilante offering his "lethal protection" in public spaces, nor how the general public may feel about giving up their personal safety and liberty to appease someone sans a badge who feels he or she has a moral obligation to gun down anyone he or she deems "suspicious," but hey, there's only so much print space, right? Displaying an even greater lack of self-awareness, Baum mulls the possibility that having "the coiled wrath of God" on one's body may give them the confidence to simply avoid escalating conflicts that would turn violent - never once arguing that maybe just simply avoiding escalating conflict with or without a weapon on you might be the key variable to his life-saving equation. Additionally, he never invokes the scientific method to his assertion (that is, a concentrated effort to disconfirm his own hypothesis) and he doubly avoids the crazy idea that maybe having guns on one's body might actually make them overconfident and draw them towards escalating conflict rather than avoid it. 

From there, there is a fairly boring section on Hollywood gun props (it's cool hearing about the specifics of Brandon Lee's accidental killing on the set of The Crow, though) and there is a long passage where the author shames the shit out of an forum-goer named SinCity2A because he thought Baum was a secret undercover agent for Obama. Then, he brings up the fact that about a third of all legal gun sales in the U.S. take place under the "private transaction loophole," in which no paperwork is collected or background checks are ran. Needless to say, pro-gun folks don't talk too much about this one - or the fact that the little issue could be resolved by issuing guns transferable titles a'la automobiles, because a good goddamn, is that ever the slippery slope to tyranny. 

After that, all of the following stuff transpires:

  • Baum talks to a black man in Detroit who became a gun evangelist for the African American community after he was robbed.
  • We learn that Freud never really said anything, positive or negative, about the fear or like of weapons having something to do with penis envy. 
  • He talks about straw purchases (including meeting a really, REALLY Sandy Hook-ish kid whose adult guardian really, REALLY wanted him to buy a gun) and the "Don't Lie for the Other Guy" initiative. 
  • Baum talks with a gun store owner who claims the government wants to dictate everyone's lives and then later advocates the president's assassination. 
  • He goes to something called the Cincinnati Shooting Festival and talks to a woman who looks a lot like Sarah Palin. 
  • Baum talks to a guy who works for the gang-intervention organization CeaseFire (yes, the one from The Interrupters) who recounts the time he shot a man named "Crazy Larry" to death for trying to steal his car.
  • Baum talks to a bunch of survivalists, and he mulls whether these cachers are preparing for - or hoping for - the collapse of civilization. 

After some more jibber-jabber about the downturn in hunting license applications, general shooting homicides and how the Internet hates, hates, hates the so-called "gun grabbers," Baum sits down with the late Aaron Zelman, who ran the amazingly titled organization Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership out of Milwaukee for more than 20 years. Really, this is probably the best part of the entire book, as Zelman recounts his magnum opi Death by Gun Control and Gun Control: Gateway to Tyranny - not to mention his long-running Gran'Pa Jack comic strips - while trying to finish a sandwich he just can't polish off. After that, there is a lengthy - but fairly pointless - chapter where Baum goes hog hunting in Texas with a dude who talks about gun ownership syncing up perfectly fine with Christian ideology. I mean, what else can you take away from the verse Luke 22:36, in which Jesus H. himself orders his disciples to sell their cloaks to go buy some swords? Of course, that conveniently ignores Luke 22:38, in which Jesus tells his disciples that owning two swords was enough ... regardless, I don't think any bible thumpers will be using that little morsel to condemn individuals who own three or more firearms, no? 

By this point in the book, Baum is totally flabbergasted as to what kinda point, exactly, he wants to make. While he's able to effectively rattle of the nation's steep downturn in gun homicides in tandem with the rise in concealed weapons permits (although he's smart enough to avoid coming out directly and saying the two are related), he nonetheless finds America's gun owners to be an "achingly responsible" but tragically narrow-minded peoples. "As a community though, gun guys were lethal - so focused on how 'criminals' and government were villains that they had forgotten to examine how they, who knew guns better than anybody, might have helped reduce the number of people killed by them and injured by them," Baum states. He then attends a virtual reality gun safety sim that police officers frequently use and wonders why the National Rifle Association doesn't do more to highlight all of the stupid shit people do with guns so as to put a greater emphasis on firearm safety

The book closes with Baum interviewing a big wig at the NRA and one of the heavies at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. While this is supposed to be the big Bowling for Columbine "let's trap Charlton Heston in a corner and get him to say crazy shit" finale, neither the pro-gun or anti-gun guys really say anything of note, other than the expected party line. During the talk with the NRA guy, Baum starts wondering if liberals view firearms as the great "totem" of conservative thought, thus providing them a sub-subconscious reason to support gun control and while talking with the Brady Center guy, Baum wonders if liberals truly are pathologically intolerant of gun carriers. Thus, Baum offers us two contradictory takeaways from the final words on U.S. gun control policy. "Gun guy logic, I suppose was this," he writes, "it's a good idea to retreat, but the state has no business telling you that you must." (Actually, I thought Dennis Henigan's quote about why he supports gun control was one of the smartest in the entire tome: "It's more important to protect people from being shot by criminals than to allow gun owners to enjoy an AR-15. We have limits on enjoyable activity in this society because some would threaten death and serious injury to other people." Outside of simply screaming "muh second amendment!", I'm not entirely sure what a serious, logically-sound counterpoint to that direction is supposed to sound like.

And in the epilogue, Baum says some stuff about Sandy Hook, says judging gun owners is pretty much the same thing as racial profiling, says he would like to see firearm enthusiasts "impose a welcome discipline" on the national gun control debate and, as you would expect, he wraps up the whole she-bang with some extraordinarily dry and flavorless calls for greater safety measures, training and background checks on gun owners ... this, despite the fact that research indicates the bulk of all felons busted in gun crimes used stolen weapons

So, uh, what was the point to all of this again, Danny boy? To me, the book itself seemed less an attempt to establish, verify and hammer down a specific "truth" about American gun owners than it was a very loosely connected collection of rejected magazine articles with gun ownership as the common theme. While it's fun reading about Baum desperately attempting to reconcile his hardcore liberal leanings with gun ownership - especially in the face of fellow gun owners who are so conservative, they might as well be labeled too extreme for the John Birch Society - at the end of the day, there are no real "answers" to be found within Gun Guys. If Baum's point was to demonstrate the humanity of gun owners, he didn't do a very good job of it. In fact, instead of thinking of the firearm-owning family next door as a quirky yet innocuous brood, after reading Gun Guys I couldn't help but shake the feeling that they were super-paranoid, wannabe vigilantes just waiting for the moment they have the legal bearings to dump a clip in some unfortunate fuckers' backside in the name of "self-defense," when deep down we all know their real motivation is probably closer to "self-pleasure." 

Easily a third of the nation's inhabitants own guns. Instead of highlighting the normal people who keep their weapons under lock and key in their nightstand, Gun Guys unfortunately chooses to focus on the hyper-paranoid Second Amendment-firsters, the type of people who even without the firearm fetish, you'd never look at as normal - or desirable - people to be around, anyway. As an expose on the kooky and sometimes creepy people who really loves them some shooting' stuff, I suppose Gun Guys is a fair enough book, although littered with about five or six totally boring (and needless) chapters. But as an analysis of America's "gun culture" - the expansive, contentious and deeply-layered thing it is - Baum's book does a poor job exploring the roots of why so many U.S. citizens absolutely adore their armaments ... in fact, even with 300 pages to burn through, it doesn't even feel like the author manages to scrape off the first layer of topsoil


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