Earlier today we linked to a selection of questions answered by author Dan Baum about his latest Harper's cover story, "Happiness is a Worn Gun." Baum's examination of the feelings about carrying a concealed handgun may on the surface appear reasonable and inoffensive. A deeper look proves this is not the case. That's not all that surprising from a writer who starts his reasoning on gun research, "Why do we need to explain why we like guns? Nobody feels a need to explain why people like guitars, or radios, or model trains. What makes guns different?" The obvious answer to Baum's dumb question is "because guitars and model trains don't kill people." But Baum's is the wrong question.
The right question (besides "This guy really had a job at The New Yorker?") is "Why does Dan Baum like guns so much?"
Baum's argument (in the latest Harper's magazine (subscription-only online), in a Harper's Q&A and on his blog Our Gun Thing) is that there is not a net positive or negative to an increase in relaxed concealed carry laws.
But this ignores his own citation that the massive increase in shall-issue concealed carry regulations led to a massive increase in handgun sales. This means there are now millions more guns floating around out there. And these guns are largely not carried because, like Baum admits at the end of his piece, the vast majority of those who get their permits never carry because they feel uncomfortable doing so. Of course, these un-carried guns don't return themselves to the store. Guns purchased by enthusiastic CC-movement tourists types like Baum sit in homes just waiting to be stolen, one of the most common ways that guns make it to crime scenes, according to the FBI. Also more guns in homes means more guns for kids to find.
In Baum's Q&A he says, "Every child killed accidentally by a gun is an unimaginable tragedy, but to say the statistics on such incidents are â€˜horrific' is a misstatement." He backs up this statement by reasoning that "in 2007, 137 Americans, aged 0 to 19, were accidentally killed by firearms – a rate of 0.17 per 100,000. That's about half what it was in 1998, so an already-rare event is getting, happily, even rarer."
That sounds so low because it is drilled down to be only "accidental" and only "killed."
The CDC actually reports that in 2008, 4,165 children between 0 to 19 were injured by firearms. That was a significant decrease from the 6,706 in 2000. But, for the last seven years, these numbers, in tandem with increased handgun ownership, have been averaging up, since hitting a low in 2003 of 3,611. There were 3,998 in 2007.
The firearm suicide number for those aged 0 to 19 in 2007, the year Baum picked, was 683. Is that "horrific"? While not damning in and of themselves (unless one of these kids is yours), the numbers paint a different picture than Baum's little 137 number.
(Side note: I assume Baum's 137 number is from the CDC data for firearm deaths in that age bracket, even though the CDC lists 2007 deaths between 0-19 as 138. But what's one more?)
Of these accidents, Baum argues for better gun security in the home, saying, "Failing to secure one's guns against children's curiosity or burglars should be as uncool in this society as smoking indoors." Does Baum, who repeatedly refers to guns as "sexy," realize that smoking indoors, thanks to bans, is cooler now than it has ever been?
In Harper's, Baum also introduces, and endorses, the scenario of an armed populace possibly being more effective than a policeman at taking down a crazed shooter: "An armed civilian might be even more useful during a massacre than a police officer." While there is absolutely no evidence to suggest this is even remotely true, Baum completely ignores the possibility that police responding to a shooting may, fairly reasonably, shoot anyone they see with a gun. He also ignores the obvious problem of a herd of frightened and confused "condition yellow" Americans all drawing weapons and all at once scrambling to un-safety, identify and blow away the "next Virginia Tech-style shooter."
Baum's purported goal to find nuance within, and in the process explain, gun culture is sometimes honest but usually comes off as a put-on. At every turn, Baum finds ways to torpedo reason by leaning on tired stereotypes, massive generalizations and the worst of one-dimensional observations. The characters of his gun world are cops who joke about farting and shooting criminals in the back and tinfoil-hat instructors who speak in "platitudes, Obama jokes and belligerent posturing." My own CC instructor, Rusty, was a heavy-set guy who was friendly, jovial and mannered. He read a novel most of the time we were completing our test. But then, that doesn't make for very interesting copy.
Baum finds lazing into caricature and trope easy. He's done it before, upsetting Jews. And his romantic liberty-taking in the service of New Orleans storytelling has seen him on the working end of "noble savage" accusations.
Maybe most damning of Baum's take on guns is that it appears to have the support of John Lott, even though Lott admits to not reading it yet. Lott writes, "Baum is able to clearly and credibly get the basic point across to those listening to the radio show that he was on about permit holders not posing a risk to others." Lott, whose gun research data is not replicable, and who has forged at least one identity to support his pro-concealed carry work, is only condemned as "weird" by Baum in Harper's.
Baum also buys the argument of the Cooper Color Code-a scale of states of alertness-never once challenging that a person can exist in a "white" (or "unprepared") condition and still be observant of his or her surroundings. He contends that condition white which "may make us sheep" is where we "daydream" and is "where art happens." One might just as easily argue that better art happens when people are hyperattentive and observant of their environs. Baum buys and promotes this Homeland Security war-on-terror crayon coding system uncritically.
He has to, because somehow Baum must justify to a liberal reading audience why his love of guns goes deeper than his assertion that they are "sexy." (Ask the woman whose husband has threatened her with his gun how sexy they are, Dan.) Baum is meta-enabling his own "guilty pleasure."
Why Baum really likes guns is evident in his tale of how he first came to shoot one, at summer camp. "Within a day of arriving at summer camp, it was clear I'd be forever consigned to right field, ignored by quarterbacks, left jiggling and huffing in the rear during capture the flag. I was five-the youngest kid ever at Sunapee-an over-mothered cherub in a tribe of lean savages." And therein is the greatest misfire of Baum's look at guns. Not once in his nine-page Harper's piece does Baum use the word "power."