Dan Baum is an oxymoron. He’s so left-leaning he’s horizontal, and yet he “gets” guns deeply and completely. Go figure. Actually, that’s my job; I’m reviewing Gun Guys, A Road Trip for Friday. In the run up to that potentially friendship-killing event (although I highly recommend the book), I asked Mr. Baum if I could share a couple of excerpts from his tome with TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia. The former New Yorker writer kindly agreed, perhaps in the hope that you’ll be captivated by his craftsmanship before you’re offended by his politics. This bit’s from Chapter 18, Tribes. Dan’s journeyed to the belly of the beast—NRA HQ—to confront the gun rights “extremists.” What he finds surprises him, and us . . .
I was getting impatient. Had I really trekked halfway across Fairfax to hear the same bromides I’d heard everyplace else? Here I was in the tem- ple of the firearm, where people had been thinking seriously about guns for years. And this was all they had? “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I said roughly.
“History. Craftsmanship. Family lore and blah-de-blah. I’ve heard it all before. But let’s face it: We’re not talking about old kitchen tools or cameras here. These things are about death.”
It was an inside pitch, a little dirty, and I expected Sean to whiff, denying that the attraction to firearms had anything to do with killing. Instead he calmly stepped back and put it over the right-field wall.
“Absolutely,” he said, touching my chest with the tip of an index finger. “These are about death! That’s a huge part of the attraction. They’re about mastering death. Mastering the fear of it. You’re not just in awe of death. You’re accepting responsibility for taking death in your hands, something that a lot of people don’t even want to think about.”
“Yup,” Andy said, nodding. “Yup.”
“When people think of America, they think of the cowboy and his Peacemaker,” Sean said. “But you can find an equivalent in every culture: the knights of Europe, the samurai warrior. That respect, that awe that every culture has for the warrior, for the man who will take it upon himself to be a master of death—that’s a lot of what goes into the love of firearms. It’s romantic. We love the science, the art, and the beauty. But there’s also that macabre element. There’s also the death.”
Well, that was a surprise: The most honest and uncomfortable answer about firearms attraction I’d yet received, and inside the walls of the NRA. Sean wasn’t apologizing. He wasn’t saying, “Yeah, it’s too bad that our enjoyment of shooting sports and our admiration for the mechanical elegance of these devices is bound up with men slaughtering one another.” He was saying that the grisly business that lay behind firearms was part of their attraction, that a dark streak ran through humankind, and that we who liked guns should be proud of confronting it.
Despite Marcey Parker’s protestation, then, guns were not merely to gun guys what golf clubs were to golfers or sauté pans to cooks. They were also what fast cars were to race drivers or parachutes to sky divers: a means of approaching and staring down death, of walking the abyss dividing this world from the next. Gun guys got a little contact high from the grim reaper. They stood apart from those who misunderstood or disliked firearms and said, essentially, I am master of this death-dealing device, and you are not. I am prepared for and capable of surviving the kind of situation you can’t even bring yourself to think about. No apology necessary.