The day after the Newtown, I wrote a blog post titled "Dumb Fucking Gun Nuts." It began by noting that I'm a gun owner myself. It's a .22 semiautomatic rifle that an old girlfriend, raised in a gun family, bought me years ago. The rifle's been sitting in a black vinyl zip-up bag I left in my father's attic almost ever since. I don't have any ammunition. But I think guns are fun to shoot. And I thought that gun owners so enthralled by their AR-15s that they couldn't acknowledge that giving up such weapons might be worth it in order to keep them away from people like Adam Lanza were, as I said, dumb gun nuts. Given what passes for the debate about guns—NRA chieftain Wayne LaPierre's Starship Troopers school-improvement scheme on the one hand and liberal pop Freudianism on the other—my blog post passed for nuance. So Bookforum rushed me a copy of Dan Baum's Gun Guys, the most intriguing of a new crop of books about Americans and guns, to read over Christmas.
Baum presents himself as a comic figure, bespectacled and pleated and wimpy, but the truth is that he's a gun guy himself—albeit a conflicted, liberal one. That renders him well positioned to report on the American gun scene. His Smoke and Mirrors (1996) is a masterful work of investigative journalism on the drug war, while Nine Lives (2009) contains some of the best narrative nonfiction about New Orleans post-Katrina. Gun Guys is a little bit of both.
Baum gathers and sifts data, discovering, for instance, that what his anecdotal evidence suggests—the app on his phone called Gun Store Finder keeps leading him to shuttered businesses—is fact: "The number of licensed gun dealers had fallen by about half in twenty years." And yet gun sales—all kinds of gun sales: handguns, shotguns, and rifles, short ones, fat ones, and skinny ones—had nearly doubled in just ten years. Who's selling them? Walmart, for one. Also? Your neighbors. Check out the classifieds in your local penny saver: They're a gun bazaar.
Who's buying them? "OFWGs," in the surprisingly self-deprecatory language of gun bloggers: "old fat white guys." Only one kind of gun really appeals to a broader spectrum of buyers—"younger, more urban, better educated, and more racially diverse." It's the yuppie of firearms, and the lifesaver of an industry that for all its political power may actually be on the decline: the MSR—the NRA's acronym for "modern sporting rifle." This is the kind of gun you might carry because it looks "cool"—a little bit "Rambo," as a former federal official told NPR shortly after Newtown. That is, an AR-15, just like Adam Lanza's Bushmaster.
Was Lanza a "gun guy"? His mother, his first victim, certainly was. By some accounts, she was also a "prepper," getting ready for what commenters on AR15.com call "TEOTWAWKI"—"the end of the world as we know it." It was for Nancy Lanza. Perhaps she should have taken the next step to become a "cacher," one of the quasi survivalists who tuck their AR-15s into waterproof PVC pipes and bury the pipes to hide the weapons from the UN and Barack Obama.
Which really brings us to the question: Why on earth do liberals think gun owners are crazy?
Largely because we take cheap shots like that one. Preppers and cachers, the self-declared "Arfcom army" of AR15.com, aren't typical gun owners, not by a long shot—even if that shot is taken at a sniper match, and carried out amid a flurry of calculations for wind speed, direction, angle, and relative humidity using a smartphone app called Ballistic: Field Tactical Edition. The shooter in this vignette from Gun Guys is Jeremy Parker, who with his wife, Marcey, lives for the fellowship and gear geekery of "running and gunning" competitions. "I don't go into this with a killing mentality," says Marcey, who distinguishes her AR-15 with a "feminine swirl of makeup" and deliberately affects a Sarah Palin look. "I go into it as therapy." She compares her handiwork on the gun ranges to throwing javelins.
Bookforum readers, of course, understand what I just did there. "A Sarah Palin look"? Gun nut! She's not. But the cheap shots just keep coming, because most of us—gun controllers and gun owners alike—lack the language to get at what we are really talking about when we talk about guns.
Sex, sure—Marcey Parker and a few others excepted, a weakness of Gun Guys is Baum's belief that there's something almost natural, essential about the relationship between men and guns. Baum hews to this perception even as he inventories the media that obsessively cultivated that connection for his individual subjects. Among the entries are James Bond, Call of Duty 4, Armed Assault II, Transformers, True Lies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Zombieland, and the Gospel of Luke 22:36: "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." There's an awful scene in Gun Guys in which a husband looms over his wife, insisting she pick up a revolver. "Just hold it," he begs. "It's not going to bite." For Baum, this contretemps ends happily when the woman tearfully takes the gun and then smiles at her man. He investigates no further. "But who knows? I'm a married man," he writes, as if that explains something.
Baum is on firmer ground when he ventures into the nexus of race and guns. One of the book's best chapters simply tells the story of a middle-class African-American engineer in Detroit, a former opponent of guns "born again," in his own words, into a life of firearms evangelism. Throughout, Baum notices the subtle inflections of meaning in white gun-rights activists' obsession with "out of control" crime, even though crime rates have been plummeting for years. (However, it should be noted that here, too, Baum can be tone-deaf—he writes that the pistol he sometimes wears under his jacket would be reassuring to him in South Central LA, or Harlem, "but I don't carry anymore in Boulder.")
The real story of Gun Guys, though, is that of social class. Baum sees his fellow liberals' pursuit of gun control as an evasion of bigger truths concerning social and economic inequality. In sizing up the liberal penchant for equating violent crime with the simple circulation of firearms, Baum asks, "How much more convenient was it to ignore the totality of the lives lived by young black urban men—the group most likely to die by gunfire." But as Baum notes, black perpetrators and victims of gun violence aren't the ones who make gun control impossible. That group would be "the partially educated, rural, middle-aged guys in the bulge of the gun-guy demographic [who] hadn't seen a real wage increase since 1978." These are the men who rail against the media even though it's mostly on their side, who loathe politicians although they almost uniformly do the gun lobby's bidding, who respond to the real crises of their lives—lost jobs, lost houses, and the broken families that so often follow, "the cloud of indignities" that mark life in the downwardly mobile middle class—with the purchase of an AR-15 and the solidarity of the shooting range.
Sad? Yes. But crazy, no. There's a "scaffold of logic" around the obsession with guns in this subculture, Baum writes. When community is no longer an option, individual sovereignty becomes an illusion of last resort. Is the media to blame? Sure. And the banks, too, "free trade" and the evisceration of American manufacturing, the collapse of labor and the rise of the big-box stores that replace mom-and-pop gun shops, which had stocked their cases with beautiful eccentricities of "deeply grained woods" and steel "knurled with an eye to artistry." By contrast, Walmarts now teem with "vast ranks of coal-black plastic," ugly Glocks, and absurdist AR-15s, the weaponistic equivalent of a Big Mac—cheap, deadly, and weirdly satisfying.
It's that last bit that explains why we have guns. Not because of their simple availability or lethality—but because there is a pleasure to the rituals of gun ownership and the act of discharging weapons and the stories we tell about them. And I mean we: whether or not you own one, there are at least 270 million in the United States, probably more—one for you and one for me and one for every child. They're going to be with us for a long time. They're part of who we are now. Not the antiques beloved by aesthetes like Baum, not the squirrel-hunting rifle in my attic, but AR-15s, light, simple, so genuinely fun to shoot—pop-pop-pop—that the "magical geometry" of a bullet's flight is too easily mistaken for freedom.
Even, ultimately, by Baum. His longing for a "reasonable" gun culture, a return to the rifle range of the days at summer camp when he was a small, uncoordinated kid, good only at drawing a line between the muzzle of a .22 rifle and a "tiny, distant point," leads him finally to a shooting range in—where else?—Las Vegas. There he takes a Glock in hand to pursue the ultimate in weapons recreation. In this state-of-the-art firearms sensorium, a giant screen spools out one awful no-win scenario after another, including a first-person shooter with live ammunition, so real-seeming that Baum almost cries in terror, a response his instructors tell him is natural. Later, he buys a Glock 19.
As Baum weighs the policy end of the gun question, he considers some hypothetical compromises in the gun-control debate, but in the end the issue runs deeper than that for him. He suggests appropriating a slogan from the reproductive-rights movement—"Don't Like Guns? Don't Have One"—as if his Glock were a uterus. Why not take it further? "Don't Like Murder? Don't Commit One." It's a matter of choice, right? That's the illusion of the individual when it comes to guns—the one who can't imagine why his gun might be a problem and the one who can't imagine why anyone would want one. Dumb fucking gun nuts. All of us, that is.
Jeff Sharlet's most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton, 2011), a collection of essays.