Believe it or not, what's missing from the current shout-fest over guns and
gun control is the voice of gun owners.
Yes, the National Rifle Association has been screaming its head off since the
tragedy at Sandy Hook, but the NRA doesn't speak for the country's 100 million
gun owners. If it did, it wouldn't have just four million members. Some "gun
guys" (as I like to call them) probably support the NRA without joining, but if
only 4% are signing up, it's safe to say a large majority of them want nothing
to do with the NRA's angry extremism.
As for those on the gun-control side, they often go beyond calling for policy
changes, about which reasonable people can disagree, and issue broad-brush
insults that aren't acceptable in other contexts. When sportscaster Bob Costas
blames "gun culture" for the murder-suicide of an NFL linebacker, gun owners
say, "Wait a minute. I'm gun culture. And my guns haven't hurt anybody."
A lot of assumptions are made about gun owners, by the NRA and gun-control
proponents alike. What nobody ever seems to do, though, is listen to them.
I recently drove 15,000 miles around the country doing just that, talking to
gun guys in their homes and garages, at gun shows and ranges, at gun stores and
in the woods, trying to figure out why they are so deeply attracted to firearms
and why guns inspire such passion on all sides. In part, it was a voyage of
self-discovery. I'm a weirdo hybrid: a lifelong gun guy who is also a lifelong
liberal Democrat. I often feel like the child of a bitter divorce who has
allegiance to both parents.
I obtained a concealed-carry permit and wore a gun every place I went. I'd
flash it like a Masonic pin, and gun guys poured out their stories. They seemed
very glad finally to be asked about their gun lives by someone who was both
sympathetic and not trying to manipulate them.
The fondness for firearms is complex. At their simplest, guns are beautifully
made things, richly satisfying to handle. The one with which I hunt was made in
1900, for the Spanish-American War. At a gun store in Minnesota, a big man put
his credit card on the counter to buy a Glock, and as he waited for his receipt
he turned to me with a sigh of satisfaction. "Tell me another thing I can buy
for $400 that my grandchildren will be using," he said. (This, by the way, is
one of the problems with gun bans; unless we're willing to go house to house
rounding them up, the country's 300 million privately owned guns are going to
Then there's the Zen pleasure of marksmanship. One competitor at a match in
Kentucky called it "a martial art," but even less serious shooting is a hoot. At
a machine-gun shoot in the Arizona desert—yes, machine guns are legal with the
right permit—I rented a Thompson submachine gun and fired it into an arroyo
strewed with junked cars and sticks of dynamite. Choose the most antigun
peacenik you know, let her shoot a Tommy gun at a stick of dynamite, then ask if
it was fun.
During a break in the shooting, I got a lesson in how guns connect us to our
past. Men lovingly discussed the industrial-era designs of their 1896 Argentine
Maxims and 1916 Vickers. As much as they were gun guys, they were history buffs
and patent freaks.
Gun guys also talked of the welcome discipline that living with guns imposed
on their lives, of their patriotic pride in the unique trust that America places
in its people. They also get a charge from their proximity to the grim reaper.
They stand apart from those who fear firearms, saying, essentially, "I am master
of this death-dealing device, and you are not. I am prepared for the kind of
situation you can't even bring yourself to think about." To live intimately with
such lethal devices, to be able to handle them safely, is a powerful self-esteem
Although I did my best to avoid gun politics, the subject came up constantly.
What came through loudest of all was that gun guys feel insulted. The caustic
and routine dismissal of "gun culture" is only part of it. Gun guys look at the
most strident advocates of gun control and say, "You know nothing about what it
means to handle guns, but you presume to make judgments about my ability to do
From Arizona to Michigan, I found America full of working people who won't
listen to Democrats about anything because of the party's identification with
gun control. A parks-and-recreation worker in Wisconsin told me he was offended
by the Democrats' view "that guns are for the unwashed, the yokels." It's hard
to think of a better organizing tool for the right than the left's tribal
antipathy to guns.
Americans who report having a gun in the home
But my fellow gun guys have plenty to answer for, too. We don't live in a
vacuum. Our guns affect everybody, and the non-gun-owning public has a right to
expect things to improve. More than ever, after the transformative horror of
Sandy Hook, the old defensive crouch is inadequate. If gun culture is to
survive, gun guys need to get in the game. If we want to hold on to our guns, we
need to be part of the solution.
Lacking a national church, Americans have few ways of expressing public
morality except by saying, "There oughta be a law." So both sides of our "gun
debate" can think no further than what government might do. Gun controllers call
for more restrictive laws, gun guys gnash their teeth over same. Meanwhile, the
single step that I believe would save the most lives wouldn't involve government
As individuals, the majority of gun guys are achingly responsible with their
guns. As a community, though, they are lethal—so focused on criminals and
government as the villains that they have failed to examine how they themselves
might help to reduce the number of gun fatalities.
The wrongest of wrong hands for guns aren't necessarily those of criminals
but of curious children and depressed teenagers. Accidental child death is one
of the few gun statistics that has grown worse since 1999. Teenage gun suicide
is a lot lower than it was in 1999, but it's still heartbreakingly high. Almost
half the teenagers who kill themselves do it with a gun, and, unlike those who
try it with pills, car exhaust, razorblades, or a rope, they almost always
Where are those children and teenagers getting the guns? Not from gun stores,
thanks to age minimums. Not from gun shows, either, unless they're getting an
adult to buy them. And not from some murky "illegal gun market." They're getting
them, by and large, from adults who leave them around, where immature hands can
The same goes for career criminals. In the mid-1980s, the sociologists James
Wright and Peter Rossi asked some 2,000 violent felons in prison about their gun
lives. Almost half the guns that the felons described were stolen. Add to that
the ones they thought were "probably" stolen, and the figure jumped to 70%. Most
were stolen from households. An estimated half-million guns a year go missing in
the U.S. and end up in criminal hands.
And then there are the tens of thousands of shootings every year by people
who aren't criminals until they pick up a gun. Tempers flare, a gun is at hand,
and tragedy ensues.
To the legislatures of 27 states and the District of Columbia, the solution
to both problems seems obvious: Require guns to be locked up, trigger-locked,
stored separately from their ammunition, or some combination of the three. A lot
of gun guys hate these laws. They argue that a gun separated from its
ammunition, disabled or locked away is useless in an emergency.
Not true. I keep my handgun loaded in the bedroom, in a metal safe the size
of a toaster that pops open the second I punch in a three-digit code. I bought
it on eBay EBAY +0.63%
for $25. The gun is secure but instantly
available—to me only. Many gun guys use such safes. They just don't want to be
told to use them.
Neither do they want to be ordered to report a stolen gun to the police. Lots
of gun guys consider it tyranny to have to tell the police anything about their
guns, and they have kept most jurisdictions from passing stolen-gun laws. Only
seven states and the District of Columbia make reporting a stolen gun
But if we gun guys are the paragons of civic virtue that we claim to be, why
do we have to be ordered to lock up our guns or report a gun theft? Wouldn't a
responsible citizen do that anyway?
We gun guys are operating under a double standard. We want to be left alone
to buy, use and carry guns because, we say, we understand firearms better than
any bureaucrat. But at the same time, enough of us behave so carelessly that
thousands of people are needlessly killed, injured or victimized every year by
guns left lying around.
Is a gun guy who keeps his guns properly secured responsible for some
knucklehead who doesn't? If the NRA is consistent in its logic, the answer is
yes. Solidarity is a constant theme of the NRA, which exhorts its members to
lobby and vote in support of the wider community of gun owners.
But that is where the NRA's vision of service to the community ends. For the
NRA to suggest that law-abiding gun owners are responsible in any way for gun
violence would shatter the notion that only criminals are to blame. So while the
NRA trains people in gun safety and publishes books about gun care, it avoids
drawing a connection between the carelessness of law-abiding gun owners and
America's still-high rate of needless gun death.
What could the NRA and the community of responsible gun owners do to reduce
gun deaths without government intervention? They could make unsafe gun behavior
socially unacceptable, just as it has become unthinkable, among most Americans,
to smoke inside another person's house or to make lascivious comments about
Some are trying. Robert Farago, who writes a popular gun blog called The
Truth About Guns, runs a regular feature called "Irresponsible Gun Owner of the
Day"—often a YouTube video of young men acting stupidly or a news item about a
needless tragedy. After Arizona instituted "constitutional carry"—allowing any
adult to carry a concealed gun with no training or permit—a group called
TrainMeAZ.com organized to urge citizens to get trained and to help them find
But these are lonely voices. The big dog, the NRA, has for decades run a
monthly feature in its magazines called "The Armed Citizen," about people
successfully defending themselves with firearms. Were it to call its members to
a higher standard of responsibility with a complementary column called, say,
"The Armed Bonehead," it would reach millions more people than either Mr. Farago
Imagine how gun culture could change if gun guys refused to hang out with
those who left guns lying around their houses. "Sorry, dude. I'm not shooting
with you until you clean up your act." Or if gun guys refused to shop at stores
that sold home-defense guns without insisting that buyers also take safes to
keep them in. Little by little, shooters and gun stores would get the message,
and the problem of unsecured guns—the main source of gun tragedy—would wither
Gun guys are right to object to government officials who propose sweeping gun
controls without understanding guns. But until they take responsibility for the
gun violence that so frightens their fellow citizens, they're setting themselves
up for more regulation. Taking collective responsibility for social problems is
not the same thing as knuckling under to a tyrannical government. In fact, it's
—Mr. Baum is the author of "Gun Guys: A
Road Trip," which will be published by Knopf on March 5.
A version of this article appeared February 16, 2013, on
page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: