The great gun-rights divide

A liberal gun owner finds 'gun nuts' on both sides of the debate.

  • Self-described "gun nut" and Gun Guys author Dan Baum outside his home in liberal Boulder, Colorado.

    Matt Slaby/LUCEO, for High Country News
  • A boy holds a handmade anti-gun sign during the 2013 March on Washington for Gun Control, following the massacre of 26 students and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

    Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty
  • Boys pose for a photo holding Bushmaster rifles during a National Rifle Association convention in Houston, Texas.

    Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty
  • Dan Steinke of Culbertson, Nebraska, fires a machine gun during a Rocky Mountain Fifty Caliber Shooting Association event in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado.

    Matt Slaby/Luceo
  • University of Colorado engineering student David Knutzen, with a pistol on his hip, has a concealed carry permit and often takes a gun when he's out and about.

    Matt Slaby/Luceo
  • Chris Morrison, certified as a National Rifle Association "Triple Distinguished Expert" for skills in handling a shotgun, a pistol and a rifle, at home in Centennial, Colorado.

    Matt Slaby/Luceo

Everyone in America would like to reduce gun violence. We simply differ on how to achieve that: Put more guns in the hands of "good guys" or increase gun control? We also differ on whether the goal is worth restricting civil liberties, and on what the U.S. Constitution says about guns. Which is not to say we discuss these differences sensibly. After every mass shooting, a "pro-gun" person is shoved under the studio lights with an "anti-gun" person, and they're urged to tear each other apart on camera. It's what we have for gladiatorial entertainment, now that we've banned dog fighting.

I had a notion a few years ago that I could help bridge the gun divide by writing a book. I am one of the not-so-rare but frequently ignored liberal gun nuts – a third-generation, lifelong tax-and-spend Democrat who believes in national health care, strong environmental protection, reproductive freedom, unions, permissive immigration laws, stiff financial regulation ... and guns. I like to collect guns, shoot them, hunt with them, read about them. As a New York Jew who, decades ago, chose to live in the West – first Alaska, then Montana, and now Boulder, Colorado – I also straddle the great demographic divide.

For my research, I drove around the country and asked gun owners how and why firearms are important to them. To help establish my credentials, I went through the process of getting a Colorado concealed-carry license, valid in 30 states. Nothing says "gun guy" like a loaded handgun. I wore my concealed pistol everywhere, and it helped: I enjoyed remarkably candid interviews with gun owners of all kinds. Along the way, I found myself shooting a tommy gun at a stick of dynamite in the Arizona desert and gunning down a dozen wild pigs in Texas. At a Nebraska gun show and elsewhere, I was struck by a seething anger that seemed to be based on class resentment against the wealthier urban coasts picking on the poorer rural Interior, which might explain why the temperature of the gun debate has risen during the current recession.

The result was Gun Guys: A Road Trip, published in March 2013, intended as apolitical, non-polemical cultural anthropology, played sometimes for laughs. The book's timing was unfortunate, because the whole country was understandably distraught over the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and hardly anyone was in the mood for nuanced discussion. Those who supported stricter controls on gun ownership, including the president I'd twice worked hard to elect, were in a lather to enact a ban on "assault rifles" – a poorly understood term, in and of itself – and the NRA was bellowing, in its typically belligerent tone-deaf way, that what America needed was more guns in schools. The interview bookers for radio and TV "news" shows were delighted to find someone other than the usual suspects to thrust before the microphones.

There's something oxymoronic about using media as impatient as TV and radio to publicize a book that took 18 months to write. I started out on local AM airwaves, waking before dawn in my Rocky Mountain Time Zone to call one station after another during the listeners' rush-hour drive-time in places as far-flung as Buffalo and Lubbock. Most interviewers wanted only to know, in our 90 seconds together, whether I was antipasto or provolone: Assault-rifle ban – for or against? Background checks – for or against? Gun magazine-size limits – for or against? Sorry, that's all the time we have; now, on to weather and traffic. As for the call-in shows, something about the anonymity of a phone line brings out the rabid on all sides.

Then I got invited onto the national stage, as a guest on Piers Morgan, a prime-time CNN show. Morgan, a former London tabloid editor lacking any discernible experience with either guns or gun owners, was crusading for an assault-rifle ban and other gun restrictions. His show sent a long black car to ferry me to a Denver TV studio, where I was powdered, wired for sound, and, this being a "remote" interview, stashed before a camera and a hot light in an otherwise dark room; it was like a police grilling in a gangster picture. Up came the music in my earpiece, and then Morgan's nasal voice, introducing me and, to my surprise, the celebrity flaming-liberal lawyer, Alan Dershowitz. I'd made the rookie mistake of not asking who the other guests would be. Dershowitz took off, shrieking into my earpiece, "Guns are destroying America! Guns are destroying America!" He continued without inhaling – and Morgan cheering him on – throughout our entire four-minute segment. As I stared into the camera's robotic eye, I considered my options. Shout Dershowitz and Morgan down or stick to the high road, as I'd intended, and await my turn? I did the latter –– my second mistake. I barely got in a word about my mission to sow a new understanding of guns in the U.S.

Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler Subscriber
May 26, 2014 03:18 PM
"More and more guns are being sold, but they're being sold to the same shrinking group of middle-aged rural white men."

But the violence that is so upsetting to urban and suburban people is mostly by the same not-shrinking group of mentally challenged and/or angry young men. Are you suggesting that occasional but regular murders in schools, shopping centers, and on the streets is acceptable? We should let state gun laws get so relaxed that we can't go anywhere without wondering who's carrying?

Your personal position is fine by me (I don't care if everyone in rural areas has guns--they aren't the problem), but I don't see any proposed solutions here. What's your solution to keep guns out of young nuts and gangbangers' hands without upsetting the rural geezers?
Alan Septoff
Alan Septoff Subscriber
Jun 02, 2014 09:20 AM
I was expecting a nuanced discussion of gun rights and gun control. Instead I got a discussion of what we already know: the gun control 'debate' is an exercise in shouting.

If you've got something to say about how we can address gun violence and gun rights, please tell us.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Jun 02, 2014 10:34 AM
One quibble, "those who hunt tend to prefer a bow and arrows". You might want to check with the stats in your state. A third as many archery as rifle, and success rates are almost half as high despite much longer seasons in the middle of the rut. A fun read none the less. I'll read your book.
Jamie Lewis Hedges
Jamie Lewis Hedges Subscriber
Jun 02, 2014 07:44 PM
It's an often used but ignorantly dismissive critique to say someone shouldn't cry foul if they have no solution. Keep your eyes turned blindly to the left or right then, and we'll all keep our mouths shut as you walk over the cliff. Dan Baum has rightly and clearly articulated the problem that our divided nation and politicized media will avoid at all costs: "the gun debate is really a way to talk about bigger differences for which we can't seem to find the vocabulary." I've heard moral adults say that expletives are for those who aren't intelligent enough to use higher communication. I find this article to have the same moral. Our shouting political curses at each other in regard to firearms belies our inability to take a more educated approach. I tried to make the same point by saying our inability to communicate is more dangerous than guns ( Dan took the time to put himself in the shoes of the ethnographic other. That's more effort than most of us have made before assuming our political positions.
Alan Septoff
Alan Septoff Subscriber
Jun 03, 2014 02:05 PM
Jamie: In this case, you'd have to be hiding under a rock for the past 30 years to not understand the nature of the problem. He's not adding anything by pointing it out.

The author is unusual in that he's a liberal gun nut and has his foot in what are normally two opposing camps. He's not unusual in his ability to see the problem.

Recommend a solution that works for you, Mr. Unusual Liberal Gun Nut.
Gaye  Walton
Gaye Walton
Jun 03, 2014 04:49 PM
This was mostly a good article but I am sure that a lot of us who are buying, using and carrying guns are FEMALE and not all even white! We do not have the protection of Armed Guards like our gov't officials who want so badly to ban OUR guns(WHY???) and if we do not live next door to the police station it is kinda nice to have some protection. I never shot or threatened anyone and do not plan to unless they threaten me or
mine but but my cop late husband said they don't prevent crime but just clean up the messes...
Just call me a gun toting grandma.
Barrie Gilbert
Barrie Gilbert
Jun 03, 2014 06:06 PM
Having lived with gun laws in Canada and then for 40 years in the USA I'd say this guy and all of us need to gain by seeing Canada's gun laws. Fewer handguns, fewer murders. I was raised with small arms, then worked with polar bears and grizzlies so had shotguns and 44 magnums for a while, I now only carry bear spray. The NRA is the "nuts" in the equation. If you want personal protection use bear spray.
A wildlfie biologist who has worked in grizzly habitat for 40 years.
Jamie Lewis Hedges
Jamie Lewis Hedges Subscriber
Jun 04, 2014 09:27 AM
I appreciate your desire for an answer, Alan Septoff, and I think we all share that. What I think Alan is adding is having a foot in both camps, which I find valuable and lacking in our society. As I see it, the ability to understand and represent both sides is a step toward a viable solution both sides can embrace. Just responded more at -
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Jun 04, 2014 10:30 AM
Anybody who would pose like that with their gun is clearly a special category of "gun nut."
My manhood/masculinity, self-worth, ego and self worth are not enchanced by guns. I think this guy is sad and pathetic.
Lee Rimel
Lee Rimel Subscriber
Jun 18, 2014 10:20 AM
In the photo if the boys holding the rifles I note two of the boys have their finger on the trigger."Boys pose for a photo holding Bushmaster rifles during a National Rifle Association convention in Houston, Texas." Is this NRA training? Lee Rimel, subscriber