Sunday, December 15, 2013

Dan Baum: Gun Guys

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I get what Dan Baum was trying to do with "Gun Guys," and I admire him for it. I just wish he had been successful. Baum is a liberal and likes guns- he knows he's in a small club, or at least a small club that's willing to talk about it, so he embarks on a journey to get to know others who like guns. It's not quite clear: is he going on a year long journey? Is he on an ethnographic, anthropological survey or trying to prove/disprove a hypothesis? And what happened to all of the books and data and stats he says he read- the book is very short on real analysis.

Coincidentally, I finished this book the day before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook incident, which has been all over the media. Just as Baum's arguments for a middle ground were starting to sink in, I'm doing just what he wanted me to get over: emotionally reacting to the ubiquitous presence of guns. My personal filter bubble is bombarding me with alarming stats about guns- there are more guns in the US than there are people- and a tragic article from Mother Jones about the deaths of children since Sandy Hook.

Baum takes people like me who are unlikely to read a book by a conservative gun-toter on a journey through various gun things- the range, gun stores, gun sporting events, hunts, concealed carry classes etc. He humanizes gun carriers and encourages readers to get past knee-jerk responses like "all guns are bad" or "the second amendment says I can have whatever gun I want, whenever I want it." On the other hand, he also throws out statistics without citations that are don't jibe with what the folks in "my" circle usually say that make me go straight back to the knee-jerk side I'm on and demonizing the other. To wit, in a discussion of the last twenty years of crime statistics: "most kinds of gun accidents [emphasis in original] had also decreased." (p. 31) In a discussion of the uselessness of closing the "gunshow loophole," he poo-poos concerns about sales of guns at gunshows, writing that "Professors from the Universities of Maryland, Michigan and London studied crime from the vicinities of 3,400 gun shows- including those in loophole states- and found that the shows, loophole or no, had no effect on local homicide or suicide rates. Still, to those most worried about gun violence, letting people buy guns with no background check seemed crazy." (127-128) Well, this number may be absolutely true, but it ignores a very large truth: gun sales affect much more than the local homicide rates. Oakland, where there are no gun stores or gun shows, is one example of this, as is Mexico: guns bought at gun shows are thought to be major players in the crime rate in that country. I guess "those most worried about gun violence" shouldn't care if the guns play a part in homicide outside of their jurisdiction? People on both sides of the gun debate accuse the other of playing fast and loose with data, and unfortunately, I found Baum doing the same.

A glaring example of this came quite early in the book: I had never heard of something called "shall issue" permits. In 1987, Florida decided that any adult who wanted a permit to carry a gun would get one, unless there was a good reason to deny them. As Baum says, "state officials shall issue the permit and not apply their own discretion." (p. 30) Baum says that he originally thought this was crazy and would lead to more gun violence, but it didn't, so he reconsidered. "My sneering at Florida had been misplaced: Shall-issue may not have caused crime to drop," he writes, "but neither had it uncorked rivers of blood. And let's be honest- I found that a little thrilling. Because now I could get a concealed-carry permit of my own and start handling my gun every day without feeling as though I were contributing to a virulent social pathology." (p. 33) If this doesn't jump out as odd to you for a book published in 2013, don't worry, Trayvon Martin does merit a footnote on page 243. Baum, having switched to sneering at those of us who think guns DO contribute to virulent social pathology, uses Florida as an example of an exciting state- problematic for those who think that Zimmerman killed an unarmed kid, unleashing, well, rivers of blood. 

All of these criticisms aside, Baum's description of his life as a gun guy with a concealed weapon is educational for a gun hater like me. Apparently there are 5 cardinal rules of carrying a gun: 1. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded. 2. Never allow your muzzle to cross anything you are not willing to destroy and pay for. 3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you're ready to fire. 4. Be sure of your target and what is around and behind it. 5. Maintain control of your firearm. (p. 36) And Baum lives by these rules and is pretty convincing that other gun guys walking around with these guns follow these same rules. As he says,
I found that I wasn't so much in Condition Yellow as Condition Day-Glo yellow. Everything around me appeared brilliantly sharp, the colors extra rich, the contrasts shockingly stark. I could hear footsteps on the pavement two blocks away. As people around me went about their business, utterly relaxed, I experienced a weird amalgam of envy and pity. Their bliss seemed ignorant, almost irritatingly obtuse. There was an undeniable sheeplike quality quality to them as they licked their ice cream cones and swung their shopping bags. Utterly blithe and vulnerable, they looked like extras in the first reel of a disaster movie. And there I was, striding among them, uniquely capable of resisting whatever violence might be their portion. It surprised me that it made me feel rather noble. (p. 49).
In a way, this is reassuring: Baum truly is a noble guy and he is hyperaware every moment that he carries his gun. The guys he speaks with and writes about are also hyperaware and careful with their guns. But there's another side of this: if we have law enforcement with guns, do we need other people armed and being hyperaware, careful of every move and ready to defend themselves and others? Baum would argue that the police can't get anywhere in time, and he's right, but does that make carrying guns the answer? He truly wonders about his responsibility while carrying a gun, and mourns the loss of friends, wondering if they would have been saved if they also carried. I don't agree, but if Baum does his job with "Gun Guys," liberals should understand. I wish Baum had done his job- I might be able to see more grey. As it is, I still want all the guns in the ocean.