Dan Baum grew up in a liberal Democrat home in New Jersey. But after a summer camp experience in 1961 left him loving the feel of firepower, he’s become something of a black sheep. In “Gun Guys,” (Knopf) the journalist and author talks about how surprised he was to find abundant Members of the Tribe who shared his passion for pistols.
Your book is a road trip across America to look at gun culture. What did you learn about the Jewish component?
There are two distinct strains of thought. One is the Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer Upper West Side ‘guns are bad’ and we must remain morally opposed …
Schumer is from Brooklyn. Feinstein is from San Francisco.
I know but it’s a West Side way of thinking. The other is the Aaron Zelmans of the world [the late founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership] who say this happened in living memory and it’s crazy for a Jew to be without a gun. Neither side really understands the other …
Some say the fundamental rules of being a Jew in the world have changed and others say that is the worst kind of historical myopia.
What you are getting at is the idea that more Jews with guns could have stopped the Holocaust. Where do you stand on this?
I think Zelman is right. People with guns can defend themselves, people without guns can’t. I don’t think its an intellectual argument as much as a gut or maybe moral argument. There was a lot of talk after Aurora and Sandy Hook about wouldn’t it have been better if there had been an armed citizen and people like the New York Times editorial board say it would have been much worse, there would have been a gun fight … but gun guys say, what could be worse than what happened?
People make the same argument about the Holocaust. People with guns can shoot back, people without guns have to go shuffle into the boxcars. They were morally innocent and on the right side of history … but we Jews take a lot of pride in the Warsaw Ghetto and tell the story and celebrate them but at the same time say ‘Ah, but guns wouldn’t have made any difference.’
Yeah, the Nazis would have annihilated the Jews either way … I know there’s a Rabbi [Michael] Lerner school of thought that we have this holy victimhood that makes us righteous and special, but personally I would feel better if history recorded that Jews went down fighting.
You say the Nazis would have annihilated Jews either way. But some believe that more Jews with guns could have actually turned the tide against the Nazis.
When we talk about that, it’s not just the Jews but the gun guys talk about how Americans need to keep guns to protect themselves from a tyrannical government. And the argument against that is that a bunch of people with rifles is not going to take on the U.S. military with jets and tanks. But I’m 57 years old. the defining war of our generation is Vietnam, when a population armed with almost nothing but rifles defeated the U.S. military.
You say in your book and in interviews that you’re a liberal, but you sound very much like an anti-government conservative or a libertarian.
I’m suspicious of the left which seems to have a horror of individuals being empowered or capable and dependent and vigorous enough to act in their own self defense. My formative years were in he 60s and early 70s and I remember when lefties were suspicious of police power and military power, and when I see my fellow lefties now wanting to have lists of everybody with guns, I’m thinking that doesn’t seem to go together.
So suspicion of the government has shifted from left to right?
The left gave up its suspicion of excessive government power a long time ago. I think the gun guys who say they need a rifle to overcome a tyrannical government really don’t think they are going to need to do that. I think instead what they are responding to is this unique trust that the American system places in the people – we have the power in this country to think and know and speak and publish and pray and assemble — what makes the U.S. unique is that our system places a lot of trust on the people and widespread gun ownership is part of it. We can argue about whether that trust is misplaced.
You wrote your book before Newtown. Did that event change any of your thinking?
I wrote a post-script after Newtown. Nothing has materially changed, but it has shifted the conversation. I would argue that it has given people a great platform for demagoguery. I think the debate we’ve had since then has been dreadful and I blame both sides for that. Newtown was a hideous, hideous thing but it does not speak to me that there should be radical changes in the law.
Are there any gun control measures you support?
I am inherently suspicious of bans. I think it’s bad to pass laws people aren’t going to obey. It’s all about living more safely among the 300 million guns we already have in circulation. … I believe in better background checks and putting it online so people can get [the application] without waiting on line for three hours. We also have to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people, and there is very little we can do except locking up guns and gun guys need to be better about that.
Is there a profile of the typical pro-gun Jew?
It’s not so much Republican or Democrat or Reform or Orthodox, it’s just these two kinds of trains of thought about the character of Jews and the nature of the Jewish relationship with the outside world that seems to divide Jews on the issue. And each side thinks the other is completely crazy.
Isn’t that true for all of America?
The question is more urgent for Jews. I lost most of my family on my mother’s side in the Holocuast on the Czech Hungarian border. My grandfather got out, that was about it. My father is the other kind of Jews who says Jews shouldn’t touch guns. I’m not saying one side is better than the other, both have deep strains of intellectual thought, but just a fundamental difference – maybe it has to do with how secure you feel in your head and in your personality.
If you’re a Jew in the U.S, you’re probably pretty economically secure and say it can’t happen here. But the other side will say that’s exactly what the said in Germany.