Engrossing social study from a rara avis: an East Coast progressive who’s also a gun enthusiast.
Former New Yorker staff writer Baum (Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, 2009, etc.) wonders at the vast gap between his social peers, who tend to abhor every aspect of firearms culture, and the “Red State” demographics that embrace it, particularly as a response to the perceived effete social meddling of liberals. He is also curious as to his own lifelong fascination with the forbidden, masculine allure of guns. For this project, he pursued a “gun-guy walkabout” through parts of the country where guns are beloved (the Southwest) or, in some cases, problematic (Detroit, New Orleans). He first obtained a concealed carry permit (noting how easy this process has become in many states), then tried to find pro-gun academics, industry types, gun-store owners, hunters and other firearms enthusiasts to share their views. He heard from many thoughtful individuals on gun culture and the social value of self-defense, though he also documents an undercurrent of embittered paranoia among “gun guys,” which he shrewdly connects to the hard economic times he observes in the working-class regions that skew pro-gun—e.g., Kentucky or Nebraska. Baum summarizes this complex effect of the gun issue on American politics by noting, “It was hard to think of a better organizing tool for the right than the left’s tribal antipathy to guns.” The author develops well-shaded character portraits, including wealthy machine-gun enthusiasts, an African-American self-defense advocate, aimless young suburban men growing up on gun-oriented video games who’ve embraced the now-notorious AR-15, and his own fish-out-of-water adventures among more conservative gun enthusiasts. Baum’s road trip into gun culture taught him about self-reliance, but he admits his core questions about firearms’ easily politicized allure remain slippery.
Though many liberals will dislike Baum’s conclusions (and gun rights crusaders may distrust him regardless), he offers a thoughtful corrective to the mutual ideological hysteria surrounding the issue of guns in America. The book should gain further exposure and/or controversy following the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.