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.

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