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Originally published Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 4:24 AM

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‘Gun Guys’: Searching for the secret of devotion to guns

Dan Baum’s “Gun Guys: A Road Trip” is a comprehensive account of the author’s road trip into the heart of America’s gun culture.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Gun Guys: A Road Trip’

by Dan Baum

Knopf, 317 pp., $26.95

Dan Baum claims to be more liberal Democrat than gun guy. Sure, he owns guns, just like 40 percent of Americans do. But before setting out on a road trip to hear what gun guys had to say, Baum felt he needed a disguise to blend in.

So he donned a National Rifle Association (NRA) hat and lapel pin and hit the road to discover the qualities in guns that produce the same reaction as anchovies on pizza: They “impassioned some people and disgusted others.”

Readers of Baum’s “Gun Guys: A Road Trip” may have a hard time discerning the author’s true feelings about guns. Despite his claims of not belonging to the gun culture, in the end he gives it a convincing voice.

Baum talked to gun owners at gun shops, ranges, gun shows and shooting competitions. He hunted. He fired machine guns. He explains guns of all types and relates the gun stories of criminals, of people who have been shot and of those who have shot people. He mourns a friend who dies in a shooting in New Orleans, and endures training to get his concealed-carry permit.

“Endures,” because the class instructor laid on extreme gun-guy politics, always far right, laced with jokes about President Obama and illegal immigrants. Baum didn’t like that, and he didn’t like the instructor’s effort to recruit him into a culture of fear about imagined “out-of-control violence” (belied by crime statistics).

He also doesn’t think much of the NRA, an organization always in a “snarling defensive crouch” despite its success in beating back gun-control efforts.

But throw out the intransigence of the NRA and the paranoia of preppers selling books at gun shows on how best to bury guns (to be dug up when the black helicopters set down), and you’re left with Baum’s representation of gun guys who talk some sense.

On Baum’s road trip, he became more deeply immersed in the gun culture, and the resulting journey inside his head is as fascinating as learning about the configurations of the AR-15, a rifle so easy to shoot it’s like having a guitar that makes “you play like Eric Clapton.” When Baum started the trip he had a classic rifle for deer hunting. By the end, he had a Glock 19, a gun as “graceless as a stapler” but the warrior tool that could stop a testosterone-poisoned death freak trying to shoot a U.S. congresswoman. Did he want to take on the role of warrior? Did he want the heightened alertness, the responsibility he felt when he was carrying? Many gun guys do, Baum says, and vilifying them as rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ nutballs is an insult.

To Baum, such abuse is a wasted opportunity. Gun owners should not be dismissed because they happen to like well-crafted machines; their expertise should be enlisted to find a way to stop gun violence.

Baum said he didn’t write to set policy, but in a postscript written in response to the recent shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., he had suggestions: more responsibility (make gun owners criminally liable for crimes committed with guns stolen from them); more training (especially for concealed carry); more background checks (for all sales of guns, not just at gun shops.)

For many gun guys, these will be enough to end Baum’s good standing in the gun culture. The ideas might be enough to get him back in the good graces of liberal Democrats, and given that he has had a foot in both camps, he’s worth reading.

John B. Saul is a former editor at The Seattle Times and can be contacted at jbsaul@me.com.

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