Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Survey of moderate gun owners misses the mark

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WITH the recent horrors of Aurora, Colo., Oak Creek, Wis., and Newtown, Conn., it seems an oddly insensitive time to publish a sympathetic take on American gun culture.

But none of these tragic incidents stopped seasoned journalist Dan Baum or the editors at Knopf in New York from letting the presses roll.

So are they just socially tone deaf, or provocateurs full of chutzpah, or, perhaps, more crassly, seizing upon a perverse opportunity to parasitically cash in on fresh public pain? The answer: None of the above.

Given that a central quest in this travelogue is to find and shed light upon the positions of moderate gun owners, it's clear that Baum, a former staff writer for The New Yorker, is sincerely trying to broaden and make smarter the public conversation on a historically confusing, emotionally charged and politically distorted issue.

It's not a bad time for Gun Guys, it's the perfect time. It's just too bad this journalistic effort doesn't quite deliver.

While Gun Guys succeeds in conveying the complex social cartography of firearms in the United States, in laying out a plurality of arguments in support of the right to bear arms, and in challenging some of the crudest stereotypes and "liberal" prejudices regarding American gun owners, this cultural interrogation is undertaken upon a rickety bridge.

Baum opts to use the authoritative power of autobiography to glue his argument. He basically tells his readers that if he, a liberal, Jewish American, can be a gun guy, there must be enough common ground for a reasonable public conversation about responsible gun use. If you just don a pith helmet, hang out with the other tribe and listen, really listen, then actual, meaningful public solutions should emerge.

Armed with this outlook, Baum spends much of his journey, which takes him from Hollywood to Washington D.C., from Greenville, Tex., to Detroit, Mich., trying to pass as a gun guy. Funny thing is, he has told us from the outset he self-identifies as a gun guy. It's this central organizing tension that drives his storytelling, from the comedic moments -- such as the weird looks he gets from his wife and daughter when he argues to wear a concealed weapon -- to the sharp exchanges with old, angry white guys at the numerous gun shops he visits.

It may be entertaining, but the problem with this approach is that you're left wondering if Baum is truly connecting with his subjects. Sure, he says he's an outsider insider, but maybe he's too outside to get inside enough?

Maybe a different approach that directly confronts how an impoverished and polarized public discourse limits our conversations on guns might be more useful?

In his postscript, a frustrated Baum bemoans the calls for an assault-rifle ban in the wake of Aurora and Newtown. He says, "If we could have kept our hands off the gun-control hair trigger a moment longer we might have been able to enlist gun guys -- or the least doctrinaire among them -- in coming up with measures that might have made a statistical dent in gun violence."

Setting aside that this sounds a little like blaming the victim and giving gun guys cover, Baum continues by asking where are the moderate gun owners in this conversation? After travelling across the U.S. looking for them, he remains baffled why they -- whoever "they" are -- have seemingly ceded their voice to the National Rifle Association. You'd think that on trip like this, he could've gotten a little closer to an answer.

Winnipeg journalist Greg Di Cresce has fired guns but doesn't own any.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J7

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