From the Publisher
“Dan Baum may be exactly what America needs right now: a liberal journalist with a gun.”—The Dallas News
“Vivid. . . . Schlepping among the gun lovers with this guy is unfailingly diverting as well as illuminating.”—Newsday
“[A] wonderfully guileless and open-minded guide to American gun culture. . . . [Baum] has done a public service.”—The Christian Science Monitor
"Baum sets out to understand what motivates so many Americans to be "gun guys"... [and] depicts these people and their different motives with genuine empathy."—New York Review of Books
“A thoughtful, well-reasoned antidote to the polarized hysteria that currently passes for a national gun debate. By the end of the book, Baum arrives at something that feels truly fresh: a middle ground on guns.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“As a writer, Baum doesn’t have it in him to lay down a dull sentence. (Gun Guys) is wise, considered, delectably written, fun to read and wholly lacking in tendentiousness.”—Bloomberg.com
“An accomplished nonfiction storyteller ... Baum's also more much articulate than the average gun-lover—or hater.”—Tampa Bay Times
“It is interesting and funny. But most of all it is enlightening.”--Beaufort Observer (North Carolina)
“His descriptions of the frequently awkward encounters are pitch-perfect.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“For every yahoo in the gun culture prattling on about world government there are nine guys (and girls) who simply like to shoot.”— The Wall Street Journal
“The strength of Baum's book is that he doesn't drink from the tap of conventional wisdom.”— The Gambit (New Orleans)
“A provocative, probing and frequently funny journey deep into the mentality of the approximately 40 percent of Americans who own guns.” —San Diego Union-Tribune
“Thoroughly entertaining and provocative.”— Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Fascinating, intelligent... Gun Guys is a necessary, insightful”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Thank goodness we have Dan Baum to guide us through this morass.”— Chicago Reader
"Baum stretches across the divide like few others.”—Maclean’s
“A fascinating look at a part of our culture often vilified without recourse.” —Florida Times-Union:
I've fired a gun on just one occasion, in college, skeet shooting with my roommate and my then-girlfriend. New Hampshire supplied the kaleidoscopic fall foliage; my roommate, clad all in Barbour, supplied the shotgun and expertise; my girlfriend supplied the imperative not to embarrass myself.
I raised the Benelli over-and-under, squinted, introduced a clay to its Maker. And it'd only taken me a dozen shells! My roommate offered to make an adjustment to the gun. I let him fiddle with it and squeezed the trigger again. My shoulder rocked backward with the full force of expectation. That is to say, I flinched.
He'd switched on the safety. "I knew it." He grinned. "You're gun-shy."
Incurable, he said. (I couldn't help thinking of Jake Barnes.) My then-girlfriend later became his now-wife. Still, I bore no grudge against the Great Equalizer, and late last year I started to contemplate a hunting permit. Dan Baum's Gun Guys: A Road Trip came to my attention. It seemed as good a way as any to learn about what is called, derisively, America's "gun culture." Baum's book is less about the guns themselves than about the people who love them the human element all but missing from a debate undermined by mutual caricature and hostility.
I say "all but missing" because just days after I began reading, Adam Lanza committed the crime so ghastly that it was soon known the world over by the metonym "Newtown." For many, victims like Lanza's are the only human element worth knowing about. As for the fact that Lanza is an outlier, that he represents a negligible sliver of gun users, many would say, "So?" When it comes to their children's safety and their society's security, they're happy to let the exception dictate the rule. For others, the debate is a proxy for a culture war that is eroding Americans' curiosity, empathy, and trust.
Baum, well aware of this trust deficit, presents himself as a bridge between the "gun guys" and polite society. After describing his "personal Big Bang," the summer camp rifle range triumph that turned him into a "gun guy," Baum reassures us that by voting age, he'd "begun to perceive the gun lover in me as some kind of malevolent twin." A New Jersey Jewish Democrat, he holds liberal views on everything but guns. It's a desire either to exorcise or to make peace with his "malevolent twin" that sends Baum on his tour of gun-toting America.
This setup may sound condescending, with its suggestion that only a liberal could really be honest or reflective about a passion for firearms. Pro-gun readers may be dismayed that the first subject Baum interviews, at a private range near Denver, does little to contradict the stereotypes. He's underemployed, he lives with Mom and Dad, and he spends every penny tricking out his AR-15, the same type of rifle Lanza used. "It was Call of Duty 4," Baum reports, that piqued the man's interest in the weapon; he tells Baum, further embarrassing himself, about accidentally firing a nine-millimeter pistol through his ceiling.
But Baum doesn't force this portrait to serve a rhetorical purpose; he lets it speak for itself. It answers, for instance, a perennial (and often rhetorical) question of the anti-gun set: What does anyone need a gun like that for? The answer is almost always: target shooting. This use is, in fact, so much more common than hunting that gun activists even have a slang term for hunters: Fudds. For other enthusiasts, it is largely the mechanical complexity that captivates. The young man, more nerd than nut, tells Baum, "I really like the engineering the springs, the detents, the catches. I sometimes think, Hmm, this piece hangs a bit, or This roller pin wobbles."
Baum's other subjects represent a more diverse and intriguing cross-section of America's gun guys. In Wikieup, Arizona, he mingles with collectors of historic machine guns. A trip to Glendale, California, occasions an audience with Syd Stembridge, current proprietor of the legendary Hollywood rental armory Stembridge Gun Rentals. (This chapter is loaded with great trivia, from the cinematic to the macabre: "People don't fly backwards when hit with bullets," Syd offers. "You crumple up around the wound.") Things get weird for Baum at a gun show in Grand Island, Nebraska, where he learns just how deep anti-government and anti-UN paranoia run underground, in fact, with some conventioneers purporting to bury spare rifles in waterproof PVC piping.
Still, most of the people Baum meets seem passionate, not crazy. They are adrenaline-addicted sportswomen like Marcey Parker, who competes with submachine guns; crime victims-turned-activists like Detroit's Rick Ector, whose hope is to make legal gun ownership appealing to his fellow African Americans, and self-defense advocates like Aaron Zelman, the founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. Baum attends a traditional German Schützenfest in Cincinnati, "three days of wursts, beer, oompah bands, and stylized target shooting that harked back 150 years or more." Elsewhere, he hunts deer and feral hogs.
Tradition is a constant refrain. Even that seemingly maladjusted AR-15-lover in the first chapter muses, "[F]irearms are something you can hand down for generations, right?" Baum seems to agree. He's an evangelist for responsible gun ownership. Experimenting with both open and concealed carry, he decides that being armed and trained fosters a combination of sheepdog vigilance and scrupulous self-control. Why not hand down traits like those for generations?
Baum's thorough attention to studies and statistics will rankle some on both sides of the debate. Gun owners passionate about self-defense tell Baum repeatedly that crime is "out of control," but Baum knows that crime has dropped at a startling rate over the past decade. By that same token, he knows that there is no epidemic of "assault-rifle" violence; statistics show that rifles of any kind were never involved in more than 3 percent of homicides between 1993 and 2004. Waiting periods for firearms purchases, per the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, have caused a "statistically significant reduction only in suicide among people over age fifty-five." Gun registration hasn't been much of a help to law enforcement: people tend not to commit crimes with registered weapons.
Baum wants his "gun guys" to be safer, and to try to understand and respect their gun-fearing fellow Americans. In a postscript written after Newtown but prior to publication, he bemoans calls for new anti-gun legislation not because they will inconvenience gun lovers but because of what he terms opportunity cost. "If we did the instinctive thing," he wrote, "and made gun owners the enemy, we couldn't do the smart thing and make them allies in the struggle against gun violence." Greater respect for gun lovers might coax from them a greater willingness to adopt commonsense measures.
Baum is a fine writer, a bold advocate for gun rights and responsible firearms use, and a keen observer of people. His portraits of extraordinary Americans, gun guys and gun haters alike, are what make his book such an illuminating read. But he also comes off as something of a naïf. He takes for granted that the antipathy between "gun guys" and their opponents is genuinely about firearms. Of one interviewee, he writes, "[T]o Herpin, the pro-gun-control position felt like an attack on his tastes, on who he was as a person. Maybe he was wrong, but that was how he heard it." Don't overthink it. He wasn't wrong.
It cuts both ways, of course. The people who rail against "gun nuts" surely know that legal gun owners are responsible for an insignificant portion of all crime. And the AR-15 lovers who claim to fear Obama and the UN probably aren't really stashing away thousand-dollar rifles in their backyards, at least not in great numbers. Baum notes that TEOTWAWKI, an acronym meaning "The End of the World as We Know It," sounds "like an upstate New York summer camp." Yes, and that hints at something important: both sides are, to a degree, playacting. An unpleasant fact of life in a country where the discourse has soured is that people will make outrageous claims about their opponents and even about themselves, all in the name of antagonism and provocation.
Baum's book has the potential to remind readers how fruitless that antagonism is, to show them that if we're honest about all aspects of this issue, we can save lives while bridging a cultural gap that only seems to be widening.
A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.
Reviewer: Stefan Beck
To explore America’s gun culture, Baum, a former staff writer for the New Yorker and author of Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, traverses the country talking to gun owners, shooting instructors, gun advocates, gun control supporters, and even a former gang member who used a gun to kill someone. As a “stoop-shouldered, bald-headed, middle-aged” Jewish Democrat, Baum isn’t your typical gun owner, but he admits to having an “obsession” with guns and has one on his person for much of his road trip. Crisscrossing America he finds a lot of inconsistencies, like gun owners who think the government is coming for their guns despite the fact that “guns laws were getting looser everywhere” or gun control groups pushing for new legislation without understanding how guns work or the historical ineffectiveness of gun control. Though he tries to find diversity among the gun owners he interviews, many just spout antiliberal dogma or “play the role of victim,” so these encounters become repetitive. It’s when the tone of the book shifts from travelogue to narrative, with stories like those of Tim White, who “used a gun in his criminal undertakings”; Rick Ector, an industrial engineer who turned gun carrier after a mugging; and Brandon Franklin, a young New Orleans man who was shot while trying to defend the mother of his children, that Baum’s skill as a writer and journalist is revealed. Overall, this is a very balanced accounting of both sides of America’s gun issue, and while Baum doesn’t have all the answers, his solution that both sides come together to promote gun safety is both admirable and prudent. Baum can be lauded for trying to find an accommodating solution to the problem of guns, but no doubt gun lovers and gun haters both will vehemently disagree with him. (Mar.)
A self-described Jewish Democrat from New Jersey, Baum is also a passionate "gun guy." To better understand gun culture, Baum put on his NRA cap, strapped on his legally concealed handgun, and hit the road to talk to gun owners. What emerges from his travels is a welcome corrective to the current deeply polarized and rage-filled debate about guns in the United States. Baum's perspective as a liberal who loves guns allows him to write with refreshing clarity about an issue that is usually addressed only from one side or the other of a deep cultural divide. The "road trip" narrative gives the book momentum. Readers will almost certainly find some of their assumptions about armed America challenged by Baum's evenhanded exploration of the subject. VERDICT This is briskly paced, personal, funny, and engrossing. Extreme partisans on either side of the "gun issue" are unlikely to be moved by Baum's travel narrative, while readers interested in a fresh perspective on a divisive issue will be pleased. General readers seeking a better understanding of the appeal of guns and their role in American culture will enjoy this candid exploration of our gun culture. [See Prepub Alert 10/1/12.]—Rachel Bridgewater, Portland Community Coll., OR
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.
Read an Excerpt
1. Barbie for Men
"I am compensating. If I could kill stuff with my dick from 200 yards I would not need a firearm, would I?"
—Posted by Zanther on AR15.com
A gun range is an odd place. It’s communal, in that it gathers people to engage in a shared activity, but it’s solitary, because when you’re behind a gun, you’re on your own. The practice is sort of like hitting a bucket of golf balls on a driving range, except that instead of whooshing balls onto a quiet greensward while chatting with people waiting their turn, you’re blasting copper-jacketed bullets downrange at 2,900 feet per second, wrapped in hearing protectors and a cocoon of ear-shattering noise. I always preferred to do my shooting deep in the woods or out in the desert, where I didn’t have to listen to anybody’s gunfire but my own.
But I had to start my gun-guy walkabout somewhere, so I drove down to the Family Shooting Center, a private gun range within Cherry Creek State Park, about an hour south of my house in suburban Denver. I found my way around a man-made pond and parked in front of a chain-link fence. No doubt I was at the right place. From beyond the fence came a racket like the Battle of Fallujah.
At the end of a long chain-link corridor stood a tall range officer in an orange vest and earmuffs, hands on hips and feet slightly spread—that same all-business, slightly forbidding stance that Hank Hilliard had assumed on Camp Sunapee’s range. On his vest, one button read, blessed be the infidels, for they shall enjoy freedom, art and music. Another said simply, molon labe.
“What’s that?” I asked, shouting to be heard through our hearing protectors and above the gunshots.
“You know your history?”
“Battle of Thermopylae?”
“Four-eighty b.c.: Xerxes of Persia asked Leonidas I, king of the Spartans, to lay down his spear. Leonidas said, ‘Molon labe.’ ‘Come and take it.’ You hear what I’m telling you?” He stared into my eyes for a long moment. I blinked. He said, “Please take firing position four.”
I took my place at a wooden shooting bench and unpacked my rifle, a .30-40 Krag-Jørgensen made in 1900 for the Spanish–-American War. I’d bought it twenty years earlier at a Montana gun show for $115, when I was broke and needed something to shoot at deer and antelope. I’d figured that someday I’d be financially solvent beyond my wildest dreams. That’s when I’d buy myself a proper hunting rifle. But the Krag fit me well and shot so straight that I’d never needed to trade up. Showing up at hunts with a 110-year-old rifle made me something of an oddball. But everybody who liked guns grooved on their longevity; it was hard to think of another consumer product that, a century after its manufacture, was as functional as on the day it was made. I got points, too, for hunting with plain iron sights instead of a scope.
I stepped up to position number 4 and, like a boy in the junior high gym shower, furtively looked over the other guys’ equipment. Out of six men shooting—two old guys like me and four in their thirties or younger—I was the only one with a traditional wooden rifle. Everybody else was shooting a black AR-15—the civilian version of the military’s M16. I might as well have been on the range at Fort Benning.
I’d seen these guns creeping into stores and ranges and had never understood the attraction. With their plastic stocks and high-tech man-killer look, they lacked the elegance of traditional firearms. The most common reason that people bought guns was for protection against crime, but shotguns and handguns were best for close-order shooting. The second most common reason was target shooting, like here at Cherry Creek. Hunting came third, but rarely with the AR-15. Most states didn’t allow the taking of deer with the tiny .223 bullet fired by the basic AR.
The AR was excellent at what it was designed for: killing people at medium range on the battlefield, which was not something the average retail gun buyer needed to do. Yet more and more rack space in gun stores seemed to be given over to AR-15s, and at this range on this day, they had taken over completely.
At the bench next to mine, a cherubic young man with a round, close-cropped head and plump fingers held an all-black rifle that looked ready for SEAL Team Six. Everything that was wood on my rifle was plastic on his. Instead of a horizontal stock, the gun had a vertical foregrip, as on a tommy gun. A rubber-encased telescopic scope the size of a salami lay along the top. Wired-up cylinders of some kind encrusted the barrel. The young man slapped in a banana-shaped magazine and, peering through the scope, fired four slow shots at a bull’s-eye a hundred yards off. Then he touched a button on the side of the gun, and the foregrip split into a bipod, which he rested on the bench to continue his deliberate firing. The man’s sweet, plump-cheeked baby face contrasted so thoroughly with the rifle’s flamboyant lethality that I almost laughed aloud. Instead, when he paused to reload, I broke gun-range protocol and invaded his space. “Will you forgive an ignorant question?” I asked. “I mean, look at the old iron I shoot. What do you use that gun for?”
“This!” he said with a laugh. “Shooting!”
“You’re, uh, not thinking you’re going to need it or anything . . .”
He laughed. “Oh, no. I know what you mean. No. None of that. I just like it. And it’s a little piece of history, what our boys are using in the Gee Wot.”
“In the what?”
He laughed again. “The GWOT. The Global War on Terror. It’s what they call the whole thing—Iraq, Afghanistan, all the shit we don’t hear about everyplace else. You ever shot one of these?”
“Then come on!” He laid the rifle on the bench and gestured me over. I hesitated. Shooting another man’s gun was like dancing with his wife. Some guys got offended if you asked, yet here he was offering it up unbidden.
“Here’s the deal,” he said excitedly, licking his lips like a five-year-old showing off his favorite toy truck. “The bullet’s only sixty-four grains, but it goes superfast.” He held up a cartridge much smaller and pointier than mine—a beer bottle, say, to my wine bottles. The sixty-four-grain—four-gram—bullet looked like the tip of a ballpoint pen. The kid ran his finger along the black plastic buttstock of the rifle. “In here’s a big-ass spring. It takes up most of the recoil. And feel how light.” I picked it up. It felt like a BB gun, especially after the Krag. “You starting to get the attraction? Now look through that.” I put my eye to the scope, and the target trembled on the tip of my nose. “That’s an ACOG,” he said. “It costs more than the rifle, to tell you the truth. It’s what every guy in Iraq and Afghanistan who can afford one is using.”
I lifted my face from the scope. “They have to buy it?”
“Not the rifle. The Army gives them a stripped-down rifle with iron sights. But everybody uses optics. Some get them issued to them, but most bring them with them, or have their parents send them over.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that the military allowed soldiers to modify their rifles. Talk about a captive market: What mother wouldn’t sell a kidney to send her son a twelve-hundred-dollar rifle scope that might keep him alive?
“Not like I’ve been over there or anything,” the young man was saying. “I see them on TV. Look at the guns next time you’re watching the news. Everybody uses optics. Go ahead. Fire a few.”
My trigger hand gripped what felt like a pistol, while my left hand clutched the vertical foregrip. I suppose it was more ergonomic than the Krag. To grip the Krag, I had to tilt both hands. On this genetically modified organism of a gun, both fists stood straight up, as though I were boxing. It fit nicely into my shoulder, too, and my eye fell naturally into position behind the scope. I put the crosshairs on the chest of the silhouette target and squeezed.
There was a light bump against my shoulder and an odd sensation of the rifle’s insides sliding around as the floating parts compressed the big spring and soaked up the recoil. My own rifle punched me like a prizefighter, and to fire a second shot, I had to throw a heavy bolt lever up and back, forward and down. With this gun, I barely brushed the trigger, as gently as flicking crumbs off a tablecloth. Bam! And a third flick—Bam!
I shot four times more, as fast as I could move my finger—Bambambambam—feeling little more kick than I would from a garden hose. An AR-15 is semi-automatic, meaning it fires one shot for every touch of the trigger, while the M16—and other true “assault rifles”—can fire continuously, like a machine gun. The distinction seemed pretty meaningless, though—this AR could rock and roll faster than I could properly aim.
“How many shots do I have?”
“The magazine holds thirty, but, uh, ammo’s kinda expensive.”
Understood. This roly-poly, diffident youth was the perfect gentleman: I could dance with his wife, but I couldn’t use his wallet to buy her jewelry.
One of the devices clamped to the barrel was a powerful flashlight whose on/off switch lay precisely where my left thumb met the foregrip. It nudged on and off as gently as the trigger. I asked about the other cylinder.
“Look through the scope,” the kid said. “Now press that button with your left index finger.” I hadn’t noticed the other button. When I pressed it, a red dot appeared a hundred yards away, on the chest of the silhouette target. “Laser,” he said. “Pretty cool, right? Wherever that light is, that’s where your bullet will go. The laser, the ACOG; I got this one set up like they had them in Transformers.”
I could see through the scope that my first three shots—the ones I’d taken a second to aim—had landed in a group about an inch and a half across on the silhouette’s shoulder—a bit high and to the right, but good shooting, considering I’d never fired an AR.
The young man was beaming like a soccer dad as I handed it back. “It’s something, ain’t it?”
I had to admit that it was. It was effortless, like shooting a ray gun. If ARs made everybody as good a shot as the kid’s made me, it was easy to see why they were popular. Imagine a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.
“I have to ask, though. What’s a rifle like that cost?”
He looked sheepish. “Altogether, I probably have in it about . . .” He trailed off in a mumble.
“Thirty-five hundred dollars, more or less.” He uttered a short laugh, as though he’d been Heimliched.
“May I ask what you do for work?”
“I work for a company that manages home-owner agreements.”
“Must pay well.”
He shrugged, and his gaze flitted about, looking for someplace to fall. “Well, I usually only get about eight hours a week.”
“How do you live on that?”
He paused, looking at his shoes. “I live with my parents,” he said quietly.
“You . . .” And I stopped myself, tamping down the urge to go all Hugh Beaumont on him, to preach the idiocy of throwing money at a pricey toy when he couldn’t afford an apartment. The kid was another man’s son; to me, he was a shooting mentor.
I thanked him and punished myself for a while shooting my antique, which, after the AR-15, felt as awkward as a piece of furniture. I pressed cartridges one by one into the five-shot magazine while the men around me slapped in magazine after magazine and popped off shots—Bambambambambambambam—showering the cement floor with tinkling brass casings. At my next birthday, I would turn half the age of my rifle. Working its bolt made me feel old, but not as old as when I realized that an AR-15 was, to a twentysomething, “a piece of history”—a history stretching all the way back to the advent of the GWOT, on September 11, 2001, or perhaps even to the dim prehistoric reaches of the Vietnam War.
The kid was right about one thing. I’d become familiar with the AR-15—without even knowing it—from watching the news on Afghanistan and Iraq. On TV and in the paper, the AR’s military version was ubiquitous, gripped in the hands of every soldier and Marine, in a million dolled-up configurations. Whatever else the Gee Wot was achieving, it was producing a high-budget, twenty-four-hour advertisement for the AR-15.
Which, as I thought about it, seemed pretty weird. The M16 was not a hot consumer item during the Vietnam War, nor was the M1 Garand during the Second World War. The Vietnam-era draft didn’t inspire dabbling; young men didn’t know when they’d be handed one of those black rifles for real. And World War II wasn’t televised. It turned out that combining a volunteer army with twenty-four-hour cable-news war coverage was, inadvertently, a potent strategy for marketing firearms.
The kid was loading up the trunk of his teal Chevy Cavalier as I left the range. On the bumper, a McCain-Palin sticker had been pruned, the McCain half scissored off. I invited him to lunch, and he suggested I follow him to a nearby Burger King.
As we waited in line, I asked about his bumper sticker. “I wrote in Palin. I’m not sure why I didn’t trust McCain.”
He snorted. “I have a conscience.”
It was a strange and depressing lunch. I had to keep reminding myself that he was less than half my age. He was twenty-four—I call him “the kid” because of his full pink cheeks and because he asked me not to use his name—but he talked like a washed-up man of seventy, looking back wistfully on a life of screwups, cop-outs, and missed opportunities.
His boyhood dream of becoming a pilot, for example, was already doused. He had gotten into home-computer flight simulators and, at fifteen years old, successfully “piloted” a real-time—six-hour—flight from Anchorage to Seattle that required him to monitor fuel consumption, avoid bad weather, and cope with unexpected mechanical problems. He’d joined Air Force Junior ROTC in high school and enjoyed wearing the uniform every Tuesday. September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. But instead of sharing with his JROTC buddies a surge of pride in the uniform and martial fury, he became so weepy and trembly that he had to ask the school to call his mother. He spent the rest of the day in bed.
The Air Force isn’t the thing anyway, his cousin Jimmy told him. They didn’t have enough pilot slots. Let’s go Army and fly Black Hawks! The Army, embroiled in two wars, would have been happy to have them—not as pilots, because they weren’t college grads, but as the true hot dogs on a combat chopper: crew chiefs. They could have stood in back, manned the door gun, and managed everything going on behind the cockpit. The Army would have given a rank for every year of JROTC, so the kid could have gone in as an E-3. Hell, yes, Jimmy had said, it’ll be awesome. And Jimmy had signed up, shipped out, and done three tours downrange.
“I chickened out,” the kid told me listlessly, pawing damp fries from their waxed-paper bag. “Makes me feel I missed out.”
I wanted to take him in my lap, chuck him under the chin, and tell him to buck up. “It’s not for everyone,” I said. “Are you still interested in flying?” His voice went flat as he told of enrolling at a commuter college in Denver to study aviation. Each semester had cost two thousand dollars in tuition and twice that again for flying lessons. His grades weren’t good enough to win him scholarships, so after three semesters he’d found himself five thousand dollars in debt, with no clear prospect of digging out. He’d said the hell with it and dropped out. And there went his dream of becoming a pilot.
“So now what?”
“I worked at a Burger King for a while, and as a contractor for Dell, until that ran out. I’m taking courses at the community college. In IT. You know.” The kid balled up his sandwich wrapping and licked a tomato seed off his ring finger. The conversation was spiraling toward dark matter. To wrench us up, I asked about the AR.
“Well,” he said, sitting up straight again, animated. “Honestly, I really got into firearms because of computer games. I play the Battlefield series. You know that one? CounterStrike really got me into it.” He talked for a long time about the shooter games he liked—Battlefield 1942, Armed Assault II, and Call of Duty 4. Each was a point-of-view Internet fight game, in which the player was not merely controlling a digital proxy but was there. Human players operated every other soldier on the screen, he explained; that was the miracle of it. He was playing against real people, all over the world, each seeing the battlefield from a different perspective. Kids’ gun fantasy had morphed from Mattel Shootin’ Shell cap guns to Call of Duty, but otherwise this kid was a lot like my childhood self.
It was Call of Duty 4 that got him interested in the AR-15. As he accumulated points, he earned the right to use and modify progressively deadlier weapons. Descriptions of ACOGs, lasers, and other gadgets appeared on the screen for him to choose. The descriptions were ads, really, extolling the virtues of brand-name devices.
Video games may have explained why the AR-15 was the hope of a firearms industry worried about its aging customer base. My nephew, for example, who had lived his entire life within a few blocks of his Greenwich Village birthplace and had less experience with guns than almost anybody, knew AR-15 terminology—ACOGs, Magpuls, etc.—better than I did because he played video games. He didn’t transfer his virtual enthusiasm to a real AR-15 the way the kid in Denver did, but in one of its endless gun-market surveys, the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that lots of young people apparently had. While gun guys overall showed up in the gun-industry surveys as mostly over forty, rural, middling educated, and white, the people who shot AR-15s tended to be younger, more urban, better educated, and more racially diverse. In other words, they looked more like where America was going than where it had been.
The NSSF found that not only were AR shooters younger and more diverse, they also took their guns out to the range and shot them more often than owners of other guns did. They’d made the AR-15’s .223 cartridge the biggest-selling caliber of rifle ammunition. AR shooters could be counted on to buy, with real dollars, in real life, the endless stream of parts and accessories that they earned playing Call of Duty 4 in cyberspace. And AR shooters did the thing the industry most depended on: They evangelized the pleasures of shooting, just as the kid had done when he held out his rifle for me to try.
On his twenty-first birthday, the kid had been home alone, bored. Federal law prevented gun stores from selling handguns to anyone younger than twenty-one, and this gave the kid an inspiration. “I think to myself, I have a wad of cash. I want a gun.” He drove to a nearby gun store and, after a fifteen-minute computerized background check, walked out with a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson Sigma pistol. “It was impulsive,” he said. “I didn’t do any research. I just saw it, liked it, and bought it.” Four months later, he sold the pistol at a gun show for fifty dollars less than he’d paid for it and went to a pawnshop to buy a nine-millimeter Hi-Point 995 carbine—another impulse buy, he said, because it was “cool looking.” Eric Harris had thought so, too; he wrote that it looked like the gun in the video game Doom, right before he fired ninety-six shots from one at Columbine High School.
“Did the video games have anything to do with your decision to buy a real gun?” I asked.
“Everything!” he said. “I wanted to take the next step—feel the recoil and pull the trigger.” He cocked his head, studied me for a moment, and seemed to realize that it sounded a little odd. He dropped his voice a manly octave. “In a world of stuff you throw away, firearms are something you can hand down for generations, right?”
The day after he bought the Hi-Point carbine, he went to another pawnshop and bought a Springfield XD pistol, also in nine-millimeter; it seemed cool to own two guns of the same caliber. “I still wasn’t telling my parents I had these.” He giggled and sipped his Sprite. “I kept them in my closet.”
He was home alone again one day, bored, playing with the pistol in his bedroom. He was dry-firing, pulling the trigger on an empty chamber, which normally is a fine way to practice a trigger pull. With a loaded magazine in the gun, though, it’s textbook stupid. He pulled the trigger and racked the slide to recock the gun. Alas, racking the slide scooped a cartridge from the magazine into the chamber. He pulled the trigger again.
“It took me about ten seconds to realize what had happened,” he said. “I was completely deaf, but I could smell the powder. I’m running around in a total panic, looking for the bullet. Then I stop, take a deep breath. I go upstairs and I can see the drywall punched out of the floor of my parents’ dressing room. I go back downstairs, and I can see that it’s gone through a vent in my ceiling, missing the ceiling fan by this much. Ultimately, it lodged in a wall stud.” He laughed and sucked at the ice at the bottom of his Sprite. “I explained to my dad when he got home. I told him, ‘I just had a negligent discharge. This is for you—it’s a pistol, and a bag with forty-nine rounds.’ He was like ‘Oh, okay, thank you.’ He didn’t show any emotion. That was it. My mom still doesn’t know.” His face burned scarlet; he looked like a pomegranate. Equally sodden with gun fantasy as a kid, I might have made a similar mistake—but for my rigorous range time with Hank Hilliard.
“And the AR-15?”
He sighed, relieved to be back on that subject. “I started building that after getting into the game America’s Army, which is released by the Army for recruiting purposes. I liked it. You’ve got to go through basic training, marksmanship, and an obstacle course before you can actually play.”
In that game, he’d used the shortened, commando version of the M16—the M4. And once again, he’d set down the gaming console and gone to the gun store—this time, to buy a real AR-15. In his telling of the story, he was switching back and forth from virtual gun to real gun so quickly that I had trouble keeping track. I wondered if he sometimes had the same problem.
Pushing aside the detritus of our lunch, he told of the parts and accessories he had swapped on and off of his AR-15 in the year since he’d bought it. He kept lapsing into such phrases as “At that point I got the new railed hand-guard from LaRue Tactical, which made me replace the gas block.” I found the details hard to follow. In my experience, about the only things you could change on a rifle were the sights and the sling that hung it from your shoulder. But I gathered that he had changed something on the rifle about every four days since he bought it, the way I’d swapped derailleurs and hubs on and off my ten-speed bike back in the seventies. “I like the shooting,” he said. “I like shooting as cleanly as possible. But I really like the engineering—the springs, the detents, the catches. I sometimes think, Hmm, this piece hangs a bit, or This roller pin wobbles. I like taking the whole gun apart in my room. Whenever I shoot, I roll out my cleaning mat and take it all down. I take the bolt apart every time, cut off small pieces of patch, and run them through the firing-pin channel.” The kid kept talking, losing himself in the arcana of direct impingement and chamber pressure, recoil spring and trigger pack. His eyes were sparkling. The light on his face had grown rosy, and I realized we’d been sitting there for hours.
“Sounds like you really dig it,” I said. “Have you thought about designing guns for a living?”
His eyes went flat. “I’ve thought about it,” he said, his voice sliding back down the drain, “but I’m not very imaginative.”
An app called Gun Store Finder on my iPod Touch directed me to two Denver stores, but one was boarded up and the other had become a nail salon. The afternoon was so crisp, and the sight of the aspens turning in the mountains was so lovely—great yellow brushstrokes across the pines—that I ended up driving all the way to Colorado Springs, ninety minutes out of Denver. They’d had snow already, and it lingered in the shadows thrown by trees. As I pulled into a slushy parking space at Specialty Sports & Supply, a black Lab stuck his head out the window of a huge Ford pickup and gave me a baleful stare, as though to ask, “What are you doing here?” He wasn’t fooled a minute by my NRA cap.
Most gun stores in my experience were intimate, cluttered, invitingly musty little shops, the owner leaning on the counter, talking football or ballistics, while customers ambled freely among racks of used rifles. Specialty Sports & Supply, though, smelled like the future—a vast, airy big-box gun store with the fragrance of hand sanitizer.
All the rifles stood in racks behind counters, out of reach. Employees in matching blue vests leaned on the counters, waiting, under bright fluorescent lights. The only things customers could touch without permission were the nonlethal merchandise: clothes, cleaning kits, targets, beef jerky, and 5-Hour Energy Shots—which seemed about as appropriate to sell in a gun store as pints of Jack Daniel’s. I’d once made the mistake of drinking an Energy Shot and spent a day ricocheting around the inside of my own skull.
When I visited stores, I always looked for guns from the early to mid-twentieth century. Besides the Krag (made in 1900), I had a Savage .32 pistol from 1907; Smith & Wesson revolvers in both .45 and .38, from 1917 and 1921; a 1920 Luger; a Chinese army Mauser rifle from 1934; a Hungarian Femaru pistol from 1937; and a Colt Detective Special made in 1956—the year I was born. Guns of that era were usually milled from solid steel rather than cast. They were knurled with an eye to artistry, and their stocks glowed with the kind of deeply grained woods no longer affordable to gunmakers. They evoked an era that I enjoyed thinking about, an era smelling of coal smoke and damp wool overcoats. And they usually fell into the sweet spot, price-wise, between modern guns and the genuine antiques of the nineteenth century and earlier. At Specialty Sports & Supply, alas, the racks of rich brown walnut stocks gave way within a few yards to vast ranks of coal-black plastic.
I stood at the counter waiting for one of the many clerks to wait on me. None did. Several looked at me and turned away. Finally I motioned to a blue-vested clerk with a pimpled, hatchet-shaped face and a red, high-fade haircut, and he walked over with a vaguely quizzical look. NRA cap or no, I wasn’t his typical customer. Too old, perhaps. Too urban. I introduced myself as a newcomer to the AR-15 and asked what he would recommend. He cocked an eyebrow, as though to say, Seriously? But he was polite.
Running a finger along a line of what looked to be identical rifles, he selected one, slid open the breech to ascertain that it was unloaded, and handed it over. Like the kid’s, it was toy-gun light, almost hard to take seriously.
“How’d you pick this one?”
“Price, mostly, sir. That one’s a DPMS.” He looked at the tag dangling from the trigger guard. “Eight hundred dollars.”
“How high do they go?”
“Oh, you can spend a lot, sir.” He listed attributes—metal thickness, barrel twist, direct impingement versus piston, and competition triggers—none of which meant a thing to me. After he’d called me “sir” about five times, I asked whether he was ex-military. “Yes, sir. Marine Corps.”
“And you like these?”
“It’s the only rifle I’d carry into combat, sir.”
“But I’m not going into combat. Why would I want it?”
“Accuracy. Shootability. Compared to others, the ammo is cheap and available.”
From over my shoulder came a rumbling whisper: “Don’t do it, man.”
I turned, and there stood Mutt and Jeff—one slight and compact in a short high school athletic jacket and pressed jeans, the other an unshaven giant in open galoshes, an earflaps hat, and a quilted, olive-green coat over coveralls. “Excuse me?” I said.
“Don’t do it,” the big man said quietly. “That eight hundred bucks is just the beginning. Once they got you, they got you.”
“Yeah,” said his wiry friend, gazing raptly into a case full of gun parts. “It’s like heroin; the first taste is cheap.”
The clerk laughed nervously. “Yeah, there’s a lot of cool pieces-parts to buy, that’s for sure.”
The big guy snorted. “I bought that same rifle right here in this store back in September for eight hundred dollars,” he said. “I’ve spent, what, another two thousand? Three?” His friend nodded. “I’m not saying I’m sorry. I’ve got a very cool rifle, and I love to shoot it. But you open Guns &
Ammo, or just walk in here, and every month there’s something else you gotta have.”
“Like what?” I set the rifle on the counter, and the big guy launched into a techno-rap like the kid’s.
“What’d I do?” he asked his friend, and began bending back carrot fingers. “First it was the Magpul stock; that was like a hundred and a half. Then the Command Arms grip—another forty. Then the forearm with the Picatinny rails, another hundred and something . . .”
“And then you’re in real trouble,” said the friend, getting down on one knee to peer into the case.
“Right. Because then it’s all the stuff you can hang on the rails. Your lasers, your lights. There was that SureFire Universal WeaponLight I saw in Blood Diamond and had to have . . .”
“It fucking never stops.”
“It fucking never stops. Scopes, trigger packs, sights. You get one on there, and the next week they come out with something even cooler, and you have to get that.”
“Wait,” I said. “You’re saying you change the stock?” The stock is the body of a gun—on a traditional rifle, it’s the wooden part. The idea of modifying a rifle that way seemed as bizarre as customizing a car by replacing the chassis.
“The stock, the barrel, the trigger, the grip—anything,” the little guy said, his face still pressed to the glass. “I even changed the caliber on mine—bought a 6.5 Grendel upper so I could hunt deer. That cost me, shit, almost seven hundred before I was done.” The red-haired clerk turned to the rifle on the counter and began snapping it apart. In about ten seconds, using no tools, he’d reduced it to six or seven components, a disassembled Lego toy.
“It’s like that small-block Chevy,” the clerk said. “You could take and use it for almost infinite applications by changing the intake manifold, the cylinder heads, the pistons, and the cranks.”
As they chattered on, I couldn’t tell whether they were describing an undiagnosed gear addiction or merely a reasonable affection for a device as versatile as a Leatherman pocket tool. Shooters could not only trick out ARs, they explained; they could turn them into entirely different guns. Swap this part and that part, and your basic .223-caliber AR-15 could shoot everything from a diminutive .22 rimfire up to a deer-killing 6.5 Grendel. Swap parts again and the AR could shoot the AK-47 round favored by every third-world army and guerrilla movement from Venezuela to the Congo. Swap again and it could shoot the .50 Beowulf, whose cartridge, proportioned like a ChapStick, had shattered Taliban Land Rover engine blocks in Afghanistan. You could even buy parts to transform an AR-15 into a shotgun or a crossbow. In one afternoon, you could knock tin cans from a fence, hunt rabbits, kill a bear, and shoot skeet—all with the same gun. It seemed both weird and revolutionary—like grocery shopping in a Toyota Prius, then pushing a button on the dash and transforming it into a Dodge Ram to haul trash to the dump. It let a gun guy do all his different kinds of shooting and always be handling the same grip and stock. “Beware the man with one rifle,” the red-haired clerk said, quoting an old saying. “He probably knows how to shoot it.”
The unshaven giant sighed loudly and gazed at the parts counter with red-rimmed eyes. “You know what it is, right?” he said. “It’s Barbie for men.”