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

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While being chauffeured back to Boulder, I thought about the distance from Piers Morgan's Manhattan to the Rocky Mountains. What are the chances that people in such different worlds would think the same way about anything? I wondered if Morgan had ever met someone who lived 90 minutes from the nearest law enforcement and considered a powerful gun an essential tool. Concepts like self-reliance and danger are so different in Fremont County, Colorado, (30 people per square mile) and Manhattan (70,000 people per square mile) that a firearm can't possibly represent the same thing in both places. So why are we even talking about guns as a national issue?

Nevertheless, like many authors, I felt obligated to go off to New York City for a couple of surreal "book tour" days, racing from one studio to the next to the next, promoting a sympathetic book about gun owners in the capital of anti-gun sentiment. Everybody was polite, but few had any idea what to make of me, and their faint distaste was often palpable.

For Brian Lehrer at WNYC, the local NPR affiliate, I may as well have taken a road trip across the face of Jupiter; he barely knew what to ask about gun owners, and tried to maneuver me into a dreary debate about background checks. But at least he talked about guns. CNN's Soledad O'Brien seated me among the guests of her morning show Starting Point and expected me to participate in an hour of discussion about celebrity haircuts.

A TV studio is a disorienting place: much smaller than it appears on your home screen, cheaply built and garishly floodlit, a bizarro world bereft of shadows. Everybody's face is shockingly close and eerily painted. People shout as though trying to make themselves understood to deaf toddlers. A floating plasma of microphones, camera lenses and monitors rotates around you at all levels; you are supposed to pretend they don't exist. You watch your precious seconds tick away on a digital clock.

After Starting Point, I appeared twice on the liberal TV network, MSNBC, on shows hosted by Chris Hayes, and on conservative Fox News, which introduced me as the network's political pawn: "Obama Supporter Dan Baum Explains Why The President HAS IT ALL WRONG (on guns)!"

The New York Times, which had favorably reviewed my three previous books, chose not to review Gun Guys. Maybe no surprise; the Times, my daily paper of choice, is a big supporter of restricting gun ownership, and competing viewpoints are unwelcome, even in letters to the editor. But Times columnist Joe Nocera, the burly son of a Providence grocer, invited me to talk on camera for a video that would appear on the Times website, and promised to write up the interview for the Sunday Review section. The Times occupies a glorious new tower that seems to be made of aluminum and sunlight. Nocera, in a trim sportcoat, shook my hand with the air of opposing counsel in a murder trial. A small army of young aides wired us for sound as we sat silently across a table from each other, and then we were given the countdown: "Three, two, one, go!"

Only five of about 45 minutes of that video made it to the website, and what ran in the newspaper was "edited for space and clarity." Yes, and also to make me look so strident that at one point it appears as though I'm arguing that Nocera shouldn't let his children go swimming. The Times also edited out Nocera's constant interruptions – "OK, OK, my turn to talk" – an odd interviewing technique. Online Times reader comments included, "Your premise, Dan Baum, is absolutely ludicrous," and "Joe understands guns much better than the gun guy. Guns are frightfully dangerous and without them the massacres would not have happened. What more does anyone need to understand?" What more, indeed, does anyone need to understand beyond what he already believes?

Not that many gun guys appeared more open-minded. They largely rejected Gun Guys because of its very premise. "I will not buy it or read it," wrote one commenter on a popular gun blog. "I don't care what some ivory tower dwelling statist thinks about my RIGHT to own the weapon of my choice." ... "Why should I listen to someone who wants to take away a fundamental right?" wrote another, somehow equating an interest in what gun guys think with a desire to ban guns. My favorite, from a commenter on, read: "A liberal who happens to like guns is still an enemy." 'Nuff said.

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