“Jews have been on the wrong end of the gun, the crossbow, and the sword forever,” a man tells Dan Baum over breakfast in Baum’s new book “Gun Guys: A Road Trip.” That man — Aaron Zelman, founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, “an organization widely revered by gun-rights activists as so absolutist that it made the NRA look like a bunch of milk-and-water sissies,” as Baum explains — goes on to describe the moment his life changed. He was 43-year-old brassiere salesman and one night, after putting their children to sleep, his wife asked him, “What is it you really want to do?” Zelman’s answer was simple: “I want to destroy gun control.”
Wisconsin is one stop of many on Baum’s cross-country quest to discover “the essential quality that, like anchovies on pizza, impassioned some people and disgusted others” about firearms. He visits gun stores, gun shows, gun ranges, and gun factories. He takes a guided tour of the National Firearms Museum at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. He goes hunting for feral hogs with a .44 Magnum in Texas. And he stops by an exclusive machine gunners’ retreat in Wikieup, Arizona. “Choose the most adamant anti-gun peacenik you know and give him a tommy gun to shoot at a stick of dynamite,” he writes after firing off a full magazine in a matter of seconds. “Then strap him to a polygraph and ask him if it was fun.”
Baum is a gun guy who doesn’t belong to gun culture. He was raised among Jewish Democrats in suburban New Jersey, where one of his mother’s friends once said, “Jews make and sell guns… we don’t shoot guns.” And yet, after firing a .22 Mossberg rifle at summer camp, he began studying shows like “Combat!” “with the devotional zeal of a Talmudic scholar” and tucking a toy Luger inside his suit jacket during High Holiday services. The Arty Semite caught up with Baum recently to talk about to talk about his new book and one of the country’s oldest, fiercest debates.
Philip Eil: Judaism provides a kind of microcosm for the broader national debate in your book. Jews are both vehement gun-control advocates and vehement anti-gun control advocates.
Dan Baum: I know, it’s interesting. I gotta say, although Aaron Zelman was a bit of an extremist… I kinda come down with [him], that Jews are better off with guns than without.
Do you agree when he says that gun-reform advocating Jews are participating in the “worst kind of myopic self-delusion”?
That’s probably stating it a little bit strongly, but I must say [that I agreed] when he said Jews, especially comfortable Jews, have this kind of desire to be accepted and to fit in. And the Democratic party is our home and the Democratic party is anti-gun.
Are your feelings towards guns influenced or informed by your Judaism?
You know, I just like guns. So, the gun issue is kind of easy for me. Almost all my guns are made before 1930; I like old guns. The guns I like are kind of charming and old and historical — except for the Glock, the one that I carried [in the book], that’s a very modern gun. I [also] lost half my family in the Holocaust, probably like most of us. My mother’s side of he family was all wiped out; I have pictures of those people on my wall. And yeah, I think it’s a good thing for Jews to have guns. At periodic intervals in history, people come after the Jews. Do I think it’s going to happen in my lifetime in America? I don’t. But they didn’t think so in Germany either. So, I don’t know. I guess the most Jewish thing I could say about it is [speaking in a Yiddish-inflected accent], “It couldn’t hurt!”
Will there ever be a — no pun intended — ceasefire on this issue in America?
Well, I think demographics are going to lower the temperature on this a lot. Because I think in thirty years, gun culture is going to be a lot smaller. I talk about this in the book: if you look at the industry figures, young people have very little interest in firearms. They want to be urban and digital and firearms are the opposite of that.
If this book could change anything about American gun attitudes or gun policies, what would that be?
My educated, liberal, urbane tribe, from which I come, in which I live, will say just terrible things about gun owners, talk about them in a way that they would never talk about blacks or gays or Hispanics or immigrants. And the same is true for the gun guys and the way they talk about people who are distraught over Sandy Hook and have a natural desire to want to do something. The thing I would most like to do is just to get everybody to approach people with whom they disagree on this issue with more respect.
The one big [policy prescription I will make is:] most of the bad stuff that happens in this country — in fact, all of the bad stuff that happens with guns in this country; really, 100% of it — happens with guns that somebody bought legally and then lost control of. Either a child found it; a depressed teenager found it; a thief found it and then sold it into the criminal market; or, it was lying around when somebody got angry, and they picked it up, and they weren’t a criminal until they picked up the gun and shot their wife. We could radically reduce gun violence in this country and accidents and suicides without government being involved at all, if gun guys would develop a culture of locking up their f*cking guns. Gun guys can do this themselves, and they don’t. And so what I’m always telling them, is, “Look, brother, you don’t want gun regulations? You’ve asked for them by being sloppy with your guns.” This is my crusade: to get gun guys to lock up their guns.