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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In fairness, several radio interviewers were genuinely eager to keep the conversation intelligent and non-dogmatic: NPR's Warren Olney and John Hockenberry, Prairie Public Radio's Doug Hamilton, and Tom Gresham of Gun Talk Radio all encouraged viewpoints alien to their own, and explored the reasoning behind them. Even their callers were polite.

Promoting a book is like running for office; by the end you're so tired of hearing yourself talk that you want to cut your own throat. In my second appearance with MSNBC's Hayes, he took up most of my segment with a long rant blaming "gun culture" for Sandy Hook. Pithed like a frog by those magical television lights, I wasn't quick enough to point out that when George Will years ago blamed "gay culture" for AIDS, we progressives jumped all over him. (Nothing like being interviewed on TV to rack up a lot of shoulda-saids.) I did, however, recall the lesson Alan Dershowitz had taught me, and when Hayes brought on Rep. Elijah Cummings, a dignified Democrat from Maryland who described, with endless sadness and in livid detail, the shooting death of his nephew, I simply talked over the bereaved uncle, ignoring the producer's voice in my earpiece telling me to, "Stop. Stop. Stop talking!" I had become what I'd been watching. It was the lowest moment of my brief career as a gun-debate pundit.

The high point was being summoned to the White House to brief Vice President Joe Biden on "how gun guys think." Biden and others in the administration were already agitating for an assault-rifle ban, but I've always appreciated Biden, gaffes and all. In person he was every bit as charming as on TV. Three of his aides and I sat in his modest West Wing office before a roaring fire, sipping bottled water. Biden luxuriated in a wing chair, spooling out long stories about hanging out with firehouse gun guys and hunting with his dad while growing up in Scranton. We wound up talking for twice my allotted 45 minutes, and I was able to evoke some of the people I'd come to know in the course of writing the book: Terri Proud, a statehouse candidate in Phoenix who felt personally insulted by gun control's implication that she couldn't be trusted to handle her firearms; Rick Ector of Detroit, who didn't want people from nice neighborhoods making self-defense decisions for people from neighborhoods like his; and Bernie Herpin, a city councilman in Colorado Springs, who wondered why the Democrats, ostensibly the party of the working man, were hostile to a tool and a sport – guns and shooting – that working men cherish. The vice president leaned forward as I talked, nodding at his folded hands, and slapped his thigh when I told him, "You're driving away a lot of natural Democrats." My wife thought she heard an echo of my rap in Biden's interview on NPR the next day, when he urged sensitivity, saying that a lot of gun owners take the push for gun control personally. The administration went ahead, however, and impaled itself on a doomed gun-control effort anyway.

Roughly 80 million Americans own guns, but the statistic is deceptive. If many gun owners seem overwrought by the prospect of something as mild as expanded background checks, perhaps it's because they sense what the firearms-industry statistics show: Gun culture is dying. More and more guns are being sold, but they're being sold to the same shrinking group of middle-aged rural white men. Statistics collected by the National Shooting Sports Foundation reveal that 20-somethings have almost no interest in firearms, even out West. Young people want to be urban and digital, and guns are neither; those who hunt tend to prefer a bow and arrows, which takes more skill and looks better on the Outdoor Channel. For reasons like that, the Shooting Sports Foundation warned its members in 2008 that the condition of shooting sports was "precarious." Gun control is in many ways the least of the threats facing gun culture.

But obviously, gun culture won't fade without a fight. Last September, for instance, Colorado voters recalled from office two Democrats – State Senate President John Morse and State Sen. Angela Giron – because they pushed a law saying that gun magazines in Colorado could hold no more than 15 bullets. Almost all of Colorado's 62 sheriffs said they wouldn't enforce the law, and sheriffs in Montana and even California have declared that they won't enforce any new restrictions on gun ownership that they don't like. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, new state laws expanding gun rights outnumbered those restricting them by nearly two to one. A recent Gallup poll found sharply rising dissatisfaction with American gun laws, but "that mostly reflects those who are dissatisfied because they believe gun laws are too strict, rather than not strict enough." (Emphasis Gallup's.)

All of this argument can't possibly be about inanimate pieces of metal and their effect on public safety, because so little evidence exists to connect the two. Gun laws have grown looser almost everywhere in the U.S. in the past 20 years, the number of privately owned guns about tripled, and in that same period, the rate of gun violence dropped by about half. The real purpose of the fight over gun control, it seems to me, is to serve as a kind of proxy for a much bigger philosophical divide that has divided our country since the founding.

Guns represent a worldview that, broadly defined, values the individual over the collective, vigorous outdoorsiness over pallid intellectualism, certainty over questioning, patriotism over internationalism, manliness over femininity, action over inaction, the Interior over the Coasts. If instead you value reason over force, skepticism over certainty, internationalism over American exceptionalism, multiculturalism over white-male hegemony, income leveling over jungle capitalism, peace over war – if you're a stereotypical liberal, for lack of a better word – and you feel more at home on the Coasts than in the Interior, you're inclined to see the gun as the emblem of your opponent's worldview: his idol. A lot of my fellow liberals seem to think they can weaken their enemy by smashing his idol. Thus, the gun debate is really a way to talk about bigger differences for which we can't seem to find the vocabulary.

The rhetoric that I'd hoped to cool is as superheated as ever. "You're an unbelievably stupid man, aren't you?" Piers Morgan asked one of his pro-gun guests in December. On the other side, Guns and Ammo magazine recently ended the decades-long career of one of its most popular columnists, Dick Metcalf, for opining that 16 hours of training to get a concealed-carry permit wasn't an infringement of Second Amendment rights. Speaking to The New York Times, former Guns and Ammo editor Richard Venola essentially wrote the epitaph for my effort. "The time for ceding some rational points," he said, "is gone."

Dan Baum is the author, most recently, of Gun Guys: A Road Trip. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he has reported from five continents. He lives with his wife and writing partner, Margaret Knox, in Boulder, Colorado.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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