What Gun Lovers Think
By JOE NOCERA
Published: April 6, 2013
IN most respects, Dan Baum is a political liberal. But he has always had a thing for guns and has just written a book, “Gun Guys: A Road Trip,” which is part gun country travelogue and part meditation on what it means to be a gun lover at this particular moment. Baum, who lives in Colorado, agreed to come to New York, where he grew up, to debate the issue with me.
JOE: Let’s start here: Connecticut just passed what may be the toughest gun law in the country, which includes restrictions on magazine capacity and an assault rifle ban. Sounds good to me.
DAN: I’m not one of those gun owners who says, “You can’t ever infringe my rights.” My orientation is safety. How are we going to live more safely? And, to me, the impulse to ban guns and large-capacity magazines is rooted in a delusion — that somehow if we ban them, we’ll be rid of them. That might have been a good idea 75 years ago, but it’s too late. There are 300 million guns in the country.
JOE: In your book, though, you make a very different argument for not banning assault weapons. You argue that very few people are killed with them.
DAN: That is true. They’ve been used in these big high-profile mass killings, no doubt about it. But there were no assault rifles at Virginia Tech or Fort Hood.
JOE: But assault rifles were used in Aurora and Newtown. And here is my larger point. When I talk to gun absolutists, they claim that we shouldn’t make such a big deal out of mass shootings because they are statistically insignificant. But so what? We have turned this society upside down because 3,000 people died on 9/11. In the scheme of things, that number is also statistically insignificant. Yet we take extraordinary measures, limiting people’s personal freedoms, to prevent another act of terrorism on our soil. Besides, we enact regulations all the time designed to keep people safe, even when the number of people who have been harmed is small. Why are guns different?
DAN: The answer is because we already have so many of them. You need gun owners — the “gun guys” as I call them. They are the custodians of the guns. I also think, though, that gun guys need to take their responsibility as gun owners seriously. A lot of gun owners are perfectly fine, for instance, with universal background checks. I know I am. They are fine with it so long as it doesn’t lead to a database and de facto registration.
Gun guys need to lock ’em up; gun guys need to take our responsibility to us much more seriously.
JOE: And what if they don’t?
DAN: Then I think we need to punish gun guys. If a gun guy leaves his gun in the glove compartment of a car and it’s stolen and used in a crime, perhaps he should be criminally liable. If a gun guy leaves a gun unlocked and a child finds it and kills himself or somebody else, that gun guy should perhaps be liable. And laws that require people to lock their guns up, I think they’re great. Report them if they’re stolen.
JOE: So why don’t “responsible gun owners” — and I know there are a lot — why don’t they support such laws?
DAN: There is no tree for them to gather under. And this is a big problem. Because they don’t feel represented by the N.R.A. This is why I started on this book — I don’t feel represented by the N.R.A., and I know a lot of gun guys who don’t. But we don’t have — perhaps because we don’t feel strongly enough about it — there is no other organization of the sane gun guys, of the nice gun guys, the reasonable, socially minded gun guys. Gun guys, I think, need to take much more seriously that they’re custodians of firearms. Their guns affect everybody and they need to be much more responsible with them. And in order to get them there, we need to make allies of them. And frankly, forgive me, you and your rhetoric make enemies of them, and that’s making us less safe. Look at what Connecticut is doing. You’re not going to get any public safety benefit out of that. I think you’re gonna make us less safe. Because you drive the gun guys into that defensive crouch that’s so destructive.
My essential belief is that we need to treat gun owners with more respect while also demanding a higher level of responsibility.
JOE: Why do gun owners get to have this level of “respect” that no other segment of society has? I could say, “I’m a responsible driver. Why does the government get to tell me that I have to wear a seat belt?”
DAN: It’s not a question of fairness. I am not making a rights argument, or a fairness argument. I’m interested in what will make the country safer.
JOE: Actually, you do make a fairness argument. Toward the end of your book, you write about how you had gained a greater appreciation for the way many Americans feel “over-managed and under-respected.” You use the example of a neonatal nurse in California, irate that the state passed legislation mandating that hospitals lock up certain drugs that had always been readily available to the nursing staff. “We’re nurses,” you quote her as saying. “We’re responsible professionals who know how to take care of our medications.” And then you write, “Substitute a word or two and she might have been any gun guy who is certain that his gun will never be a public safety problem.”
DAN: We have a tendency to say, “There oughtta be a law!” Why would you ever think that someone who’s bent on homicide is going to obey any of these laws? Also, you’re operating in a la-la land if you think that by banning guns we’ll be rid of them.
JOE: Forget about banning. What if the law said, “Your gun must be locked up at home. If it’s not, we’ll prosecute you.”
DAN: I’m with you.
JOE: If a child finds a loaded gun in his house and accidentally shoots himself or someone else, should his parents be prosecuted?
DAN: Perhaps they should be. But let me ask you this. Do you favor having a course in school for children, “What to do if you find a gun?” To educate children on how to handle a gun — would you favor that? Because most liberal parents would not.
JOE: I don’t know. Here’s what I would like to see, though. I would like to see a cultural change, like the cultural shift that took place with drunken driving, where a behavior that was once acceptable becomes unacceptable. I would like to see a cultural protocol, for instance, that would make it O.K. for parents to ask other parents if there is a loaded gun in the house prior to allowing a play date.
DAN: That’s fine. But then you should also ask, “Do you have a backyard swimming pool?” since young kids are more likely to die from a swimming pool accident.
JOE: Here we go! The classic gun guy’s argument.
DAN: I’m not trying to make an ideological point. I’m talking about being safer. And we get there, I think, by being respectful to the people who own the guns.
JOE: Once again, your argument seems to be, we’re going to treat gun owners differently from everyone else.
DAN: Well, maybe we have to, because guns are so dangerous.
JOE: Why, because they’re going to shoot us?
DAN: No, no! Because we need the gun guys. You won’t get there by vilifying them or treating them like children. I think most of what happens with guns that is bad in this country could be solved by the gun guys themselves.
JOE: I disagree.
DAN: You don’t understand guns, and you don’t know gun guys, yet you want to make rules for things you don’t understand for people you don’t know. And that is not how we’re going to end up safer. Where gun guys draw the line is having you make consumer decisions for them. Because what you’re saying, Joe — you, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — you want to say to some guy in Kansas, “You can have this rifle. But you can’t have that one.” And they’re saying, “What does Joe Nocera know about guns? What does Joe Nocera know about me?” It is offensive. We should be insisting on real responsibility from gun owners instead of doing what we’re doing now, which doesn’t get us anywhere. Because you don’t really think that by adjusting the number of rounds in a magazine we’re going to make everybody safer. You can’t possibly believe that.
JOE: When there is a mass shooting, and you’ve limited the number of rounds in a magazine, fewer people might get killed. That seems obvious to me.
DAN: Once you have made a consumer decision for 100 million gun owners that they can’t have these magazines because they are too irresponsible, you have now driven them out of the conversation.
JOE: After Newtown, Wayne LaPierre said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Do you believe that?
DAN: As much as I dislike the N.R.A., there’s a cold logic to it. It’s the reason we have armed guards in airports and shopping malls. When you see an armed guard someplace, what you’re hoping is, if somebody pulls out a gun and does something bad, that the guard will use his gun to protect you.
JOE: Actually, what the N.R.A. means by that statement is that if somebody attempts a mass shooting in a movie theater, someone else in the theater will have a gun and shoot the shooter. Which seems crazy to me.
DAN: I can’t imagine anything worse than one guy with a gun bent on mass murder in a room full of unarmed people. Anything is better than that.
JOE: The idea that some heroic figure is going to be able to get up and actually be able to shoot them…
DAN: Then why do cops carry guns? Disarm the police.
JOE: That’s an absurd, extremist argument.
DAN: Why? I carried a concealed weapon…
JOE: And did you think you were going to save somebody?
DAN: I was not nearly well-trained enough. I think somebody who wants to carry a gun should be at least as well trained as the police. Right now, for example, if I wanted to carry a gun, my permit would be good in 30 states. But in every state it’s different. I can wear it in a restaurant in this state, but not in that state. In this place, I can take it near a school, but in that place I can’t. Flip the script. Say, “If you get licensed to carry a handgun, you can carry it anywhere. But you have to be trained at least as well as a police officer.” Do you worry when there’s a police officer in your kid’s school? No. You trust the police officer. Trust gun owners. Raise everybody’s level of responsibility instead of treating them like children. It’s getting us nowhere. Folks like you, who have a cultural aversion to guns, who want to stick it to the gun guys…
JOE [interrupts]: I find it astonishing that you say we’re deepening the divide but the N.R.A….
DAN: Oh, they are, too! A pox on both their houses. Absolutely. The N.R.A. is a hideous organization. Every day I get e-mails from people who say, “I’m a gun guy, and I can’t stand the N.R.A.” We need to speak with a different voice. It’s really important.