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August 9, 2010

"A Coarsening of Society"

A fascinating story was featured this month on the cover of Harper’s Magazine. Entitled “Happiness is a Worn Gun: My Concealed Weapon and Me,” the article was written by author Dan Baum, a “fairly typical liberal Democrat” who recently obtained a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Colorado. Baum’s article provides a balanced and insightful perspective on the culture that surrounds the gun rights community.

In the piece, Baum traces his 49-year love affair with firearms, which dates back to the summers he spent at camp firing a .22 caliber rifle as an overweight child. As an adult gun owner, Baum readily admits that, “The sensual pleasure of handling guns is a big part of the habit ... They are deeply satisfying to manipulate, even without shooting.” After deciding that hunting and range-shooting was not allowing him to be close enough to his firearms (Baum wanted to “live the gun life”), he decided to apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in his home state of Colorado.

A Right to Instant Gratification
In Colorado, just as in 37 other “Shall-Issue” states, the state must issue a permit to carry a concealed handgun to any citizen that passes an instant computer background check and meets a basic set of requirements. One of those requirements is to complete just three hours of training through an approved handgun safety course. This course need be taken only once—no additional training is required when a permit holder renews his/her permit every five years.

Baum, to his credit, went beyond the required three hours of training and took two separate handgun safety courses over the course of five days. He hoped to receive serious instruction as he took on the weighty and dangerous responsibility of carrying a weapon in public. In practice however, Baum found that his two classes “taught [him] almost nothing about how to defend [himself] with a gun” and “were less about self-defense than about recruiting [applicants] into a culture animated by fear of violent crime.”

At his first training class in Boulder, Baum’s instructor “packed about twenty minutes of useful instruction into four long evenings of platitudes, Obama jokes, and belligerent posturing.” He also openly admitted to breaking the law, saying he refused to get a carry permit because “I don’t think I have to get the government’s permission to exercise my right to bear arms.” A police officer taught the class a “legal implications” segment and encouraged the applicants to lie to police if stopped while wearing their guns. He then told the class that even though it is illegal to shoot a fleeing criminal, “If your aim is good enough, you have time to get your story straight before I get there.” The class was shown “lurid films of men in ski masks breaking into homes occupied by terrified women” and spent time examining pictures of a man that had been “slashed open with a knife.” In the course of four evenings, the applicants only handled their firearms once—shooting about 50 rounds at targets approximately 15 feet away.

Baum’s second class was at the Tanner gun show in Denver (the same place where Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold obtained their firearms). Baum described it as a “fifteen-minute recruiting pitch for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and a long-winded, paranoid fantasy about home invasion ... ‘They know where your bedroom is, and they’re there to kill you.’” The irony in this, as Baum states, is that only 87 Americans were murdered during home burglaries in 2008: “Statistically, you had a better chance of being killed by bees.”

While Baum asserts that American citizens should be able to carry concealed weapons in public, he was deeply disturbed by his experience with the permitting process in Colorado, stating that, “It’s a scandal...that people can get a license to carry on the basis of a three hour ‘course’ given at a gun show. State requirements vary, but some don’t even ask students to fire a weapon before getting a carry permit.” Baum recommends that state governments “enforce high standards for instruction, including extensive live firing, role-playing, and serious examination of the legal issues ... States should [also] require a refresher course, the way Texas does, before renewing a carry permit.” Furthermore, “Since people can carry guns state to state, standards should be uniform.” As Baum notes, “The Second Amendment confers a right to keep and bear arms. It does not confer a right to instant gratification.”

A Different Mentality
An obsession with violent crime (“At class, it was hard to discern the line between preparing for something awful to happen and praying for something awful to happen”) is just one element of a gun culture that Baum found himself immersed in once he decided to carry a handgun in public. In Baum’s words, “Anyone who tells you he has no fantasy life constructed around his gun either has been packing it for as long as he’s been watching television or is flat-out lying.”

Another element is paranoia that national “gun confiscation is nigh.” Baum recalled a man selling Yugoslav AK-47s at the Tanner gun show and yelling, “Buy it now! Tomorrow they may not let you!” “You don’t think [Obama’s] waiting for his second term to come and get them?” he asked Baum. “You’re dreaming.” To Baum, such fears seem wildly exaggerated: “For as long as I’ve been voting, I’ve reflexively supported waiting periods, background checks, the assault-rifle ban, and other gun control measures. None interfered with my enjoyment of firearms, and none seemed to me to be the first step toward tyranny.”

Baum recalled another gun show dealer yelling to potential customers, “Liberals want to take away your gun and your McDonald’s both.” Baum discovered a “class-based resentment that permeates modern gun culture,” citing an editorial in the NRA’s America’s First Freedom magazine that characterized their opposition as “those who sip tea and nibble biscuits while musing about how to restrict the rest of us.”

Then there are the color-coded “conditions of readiness” that concealed handgun permit holders govern themselves by. Condition White is “total oblivion to one’s surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking in city streets, texting while listening to an iPod.” Condition Yellow is “being aware of, and taking an interest in, one’s surroundings—essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving.” It requires “being mentally prepared to kill.” Condition Orange is being aware of a possible threat and Condition Red is responding to danger.

Baum notes that “contempt for Condition White unifies the gun-carrying community almost as much as does fealty to the Second Amendment.” He was told by one of his Boulder instructors that “when you’re in Condition White you’re a sheep.” The American Tactical Shooting Association notes that the only time you should be in Condition White is “when in your own home, with the doors locked, the alarm system on, and your dog at your feet.” Gun carriers are instructed to be in Condition Yellow at all times.

After experiencing Condition Yellow for months, however, Baum found it to be “kind of exhausting.” He missed Condition White. “Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens,” Baum says. “It’s where we daydream, reminisce and hear music in our heads. Hardcore gun carriers want no part of that.”

Drinking the Kool-Aid
Despite being critical about several aspects of the gun culture, Baum simultaneously seems to endorse some of its most well-worn talking points. In a recent radio interview, he argues that guns laws are “not going to keep guns out of the hands of the people that you don’t want to have them” and therefore “only really apply to the law-abiding.” He also suggests that “Shall-Issue” laws have had no negative effect on public safety. In making these claims, Baum examines long-term trends in violent crime rates in the U.S., but curiously fails to comment on gun death rates or compare America to other industrialized democracies. Gun violence prevention organizations do not argue that guns cause crime, but rather that the presence of guns makes attempted crimes, attempted suicides, and arguments/confrontations of all kinds more lethal.

One recent study found that U.S. homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in 23 other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher. These 23 nations uniformly have fewer guns per capita than the United States and far tougher gun laws. An examination of gun death rates within the United States finds that states with tough gun laws (including “May-Issue” concealed carry laws) like Hawaii, New York and New Jersey have the lowest gun death rates. States with weak laws (and “Shall-Issue” concealed carry laws) like Louisiana, Alaska and Nevada have the highest. This data provides little support for the notion that “an armed society is a polite society.”

Baum also erroneously states, “Young black urban men killing each other—that is the gun problem [in the U.S.] right now.” In reality, the claim that gun violence is a “black problem" hardly makes sense when one considers that out of the 31,446 gun deaths that occurred in America in 2005, 21,958 of the victims were whites, and from 1976 to 2005, 86% of white murder victims were killed by whites. Additionally, in 2008 the FBI reported 14,180 gun deaths, only 844 of which were gang related. The ten states with the highest rates of gun death per capita in the U.S. in 2007 were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Tennessee, New Mexico, Arizona and West Virginia—predominantly rural states.

Finally, while acknowledging that “a lot of gun rights people are like the Taliban, if you don’t agree with them on absolutely everything you’re a friend of tyranny and a monster,” Baum does not fully grasp the political consequences of the gun rights movement’s agenda. He fails to perceive the “Insurrectionist Idea” that animates the movement—namely, the belief that the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to confront “tyrannical” government with force of arms. Insurrectionists will naturally oppose any laws that allow government oversight of firearms ownership because they want to remain anonymous should they one day decide to wage war against our government. As Cato Institute analyst David Kopel puts it, “The tools of political dissent should be privately owned and unregistered.”

Insurrectionism is a far-right-wing ideology that opposes a strong, activist government in nearly all of its forms and, as such, presents a threat to the broader progressive agenda that Baum claims to support. Baum recently got the cold shoulder when his Harper's article was featured at "The Truth About Guns" blog. Author Robert Farago and commenters at the blog called Baum into question over "the obvious conflict of interest between his liberal upbringing and the consequences of his acceptance of gun ownership," with one reader comparing the current Democratic Leadership in Congress to Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Heinrich Himmler.

Not a Prop
Baum has decided that he will probably stop carrying his handgun in public. “It’s uncomfortable, distracting, and freaks out my friends; it’s not worth it,” he says. Baum felt that carrying his gun had “militarized [his] life” and brought out impulses in him that he disliked, including “social pessimism” and “irrational fear” (“You don’t want to contribute to a coarsening of society by preparing to kill at a moment’s notice”). Ultimately, he had to remind himself that his gun “is not a prop, a political statement, or a rhetorical device, but an instrument designed to blow a ragged channel through a human being.”

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