This week, Weekend Reader brings you Gun Guys, by Dan Baum. Gun Guys offers an insightful and humorous look at the battle of guns and gun laws in the United States. Baum, a self-described “liberal gun owner,” provides readers with a varying look at the gun debate through a series of interviews and interactions with avid gun owners. Post-Newtown, gun-related violence has been under a microscope and determining effective laws has become a prevalent issue. The Senate is expected to vote on a gun bill in early April, which as of this week will unfortunately not include an assault weapons ban–something a majority of Americans are in favor of. Gun Guys provides the reader with a slightly different, more personal account of gun owners across the country.
I stepped up to position number 4 and, like a boy in the junior high gym shower, furtively looked over the other guys’ equipment. Out of six men shooting—two old guys like me and four in their thirties or younger—I was the only one with a traditional wooden rifle. Everybody else was shooting a black AR-15—the civilian version of the military’s M16. I might as well have been on the range at Fort Benning.
I’d seen these guns creeping into stores and ranges and had never understood the attraction. With their plastic stocks and high-tech man-killer look, they lacked the elegance of traditional firearms. The most common reason that people bought guns was for protection against crime, but shotguns and handguns were best for close-order shooting. The second most common reason was target shooting, like here at Cherry Creek. Hunting came third, but rarely with the AR-15. Most states didn’t allow the taking of deer with the tiny .223 bullet fired by the basic AR.
The AR was excellent at what it was designed for: killing people at medium range on the battlefield, which was not something the average retail gun buyer needed to do. Yet more and more rack space in gun stores seemed to be given over to AR-15s, and at this range on this day, they had taken over completely.
At the bench next to mine, a cherubic young man with a round, close-cropped head and plump fingers held an all-black rifle that looked ready for SEAL Team Six. Everything that was wood on my rifle was plastic on his. Instead of a horizontal stock, the gun had a vertical foregrip, as on a tommy gun. A rubber-encased telescopic scope the size of a salami lay along the top. Wired-up cylinders of some kind encrusted the barrel. The young man slapped in a banana-shaped magazine and, peering through the scope, fired four slow shots at a bull’s-eye a hundred yards off. Then he touched a button on the side of the gun, and the foregrip split into a bipod, which he rested on the bench to continue his deliberate firing. The man’s sweet, plump-cheeked baby face contrasted so thoroughly with the rifle’s flamboyant lethality that I almost laughed aloud. Instead, when he paused to reload, I broke gun-range protocol and invaded his space. “Will you forgive an ignorant question?” I asked. “I mean, look at the old iron I shoot. What do you use that gun for?”
“This!” he said with a laugh. “Shooting!”
“You’re, uh, not thinking you’re going to need it or anything . . .”
He laughed. “Oh, no. I know what you mean. No. None of that. I just like it. And it’s a little piece of history, what our boys are using in the Gee Wot.”
“In the what?”
He laughed again. “The GWOT. The Global War on Terror. It’s what they call the whole thing—Iraq, Afghanistan, all the shit we don’t hear about everyplace else. You ever shot one of these?”
“Then come on!” He laid the rifle on the bench and gestured me over. I hesitated. Shooting another man’s gun was like dancing with his wife. Some guys got offended if you asked, yet here he was offering it up unbidden.
“Here’s the deal,” he said excitedly, licking his lips like a five-year-old showing off his favorite toy truck. “The bullet’s only sixty-four grains, but it goes superfast.” He held up a cartridge much smaller and pointier than mine—a beer bottle, say, to my wine bottles. The sixty-four-grain—four-gram—bullet looked like the tip of a ballpoint pen. The kid ran his finger along the black plastic buttstock of the rifle. “In here’s a big-ass spring. It takes up most of the recoil. And feel how light.” I picked it up. It felt like a BB gun, especially after the Krag. “You starting to get the attraction? Now look through that.” I put my eye to the scope, and the target trembled on the tip of my nose. “That’s an ACOG,” he said. “It costs more than the rifle, to tell you the truth. It’s what every guy in Iraq and Afghanistan who can afford one is using.”
I lifted my face from the scope. “They have to buy it?”
“Not the rifle. The Army gives them a stripped-down rifle with iron sights. But everybody uses optics. Some get them issued to them, but most bring them with them, or have their parents send them over.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that the military allowed soldiers to modify their rifles. Talk about a captive market: What mother wouldn’t sell a kidney to send her son a twelve-hundred-dollar rifle scope that might keep him alive?
“Not like I’ve been over there or anything,” the young man was saying. “I see them on TV. Look at the guns next time you’re watching the news. Everybody uses optics. Go ahead. Fire a few.”
My trigger hand gripped what felt like a pistol, while my left hand clutched the vertical foregrip. I suppose it was more ergonomic than the Krag. To grip the Krag, I had to tilt both hands. On this genetically modified organism of a gun, both fists stood straight up, as though I were boxing. It fit nicely into my shoulder, too, and my eye fell naturally into position behind the scope. I put the crosshairs on the chest of the silhouette target and squeezed.
There was a light bump against my shoulder and an odd sensation of the rifle’s insides sliding around as the floating parts compressed the big spring and soaked up the recoil. My own rifle punched me like a prizefighter, and to fire a second shot, I had to throw a heavy bolt lever up and back, forward and down. With this gun, I barely brushed the trigger, as gently as flicking crumbs off a tablecloth. Bam! And a third flick—Bam!
I shot four times more, as fast as I could move my finger—Bambambambam—feeling little more kick than I would from a garden hose. An AR-15 is semi-automatic, meaning it fires one shot for every touch of the trigger, while the M16—and other true “assault rifles”—can fire continuously, like a machine gun. The distinction seemed pretty meaningless, though—this AR could rock and roll faster than I could properly aim.
“How many shots do I have?”
“The magazine holds thirty, but, uh, ammo’s kinda expensive.”
Understood. This roly-poly, diffident youth was the perfect gentleman: I could dance with his wife, but I couldn’t use his wallet to buy her jewelry.
One of the devices clamped to the barrel was a powerful flashlight whose on/off switch lay precisely where my left thumb met the foregrip. It nudged on and off as gently as the trigger. I asked about the other cylinder.
“Look through the scope,” the kid said. “Now press that button with your left index finger.” I hadn’t noticed the other button. When I pressed it, a red dot appeared a hundred yards away, on the chest of the silhouette target. “Laser,” he said. “Pretty cool, right? Wherever that light is, that’s where your bullet will go. The laser, the ACOG; I got this one set up like they had them in Transformers.”
I could see through the scope that my first three shots—the ones I’d taken a second to aim—had landed in a group about an inch and a half across on the silhouette’s shoulder—a bit high and to the right, but good shooting, considering I’d never fired an AR.
The young man was beaming like a soccer dad as I handed it back. “It’s something, ain’t it?”
I had to admit that it was. It was effortless, like shooting a ray gun. If ARs made everybody as good a shot as the kid’s made me, it was easy to see why they were popular. Imagine a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.
“I have to ask, though. What’s a rifle like that cost?”
He looked sheepish. “Altogether, I probably have in it about . . .” He trailed off in a mumble.
“Thirty-five hundred dollars, more or less.” He uttered a short laugh, as though he’d been Heimliched.
“May I ask what you do for work?”
“I work for a company that manages home-owner agreements.”
“Must pay well.”
He shrugged, and his gaze flitted about, looking for someplace to fall. “Well, I usually only get about eight hours a week.”
“How do you live on that?”
He paused, looking at his shoes. “I live with my parents,” he said quietly.
“You . . .” And I stopped myself, tamping down the urge to go all Hugh Beaumont on him, to preach the idiocy of throwing money at a pricey toy when he couldn’t afford an apartment. The kid was another man’s son; to me, he was a shooting mentor.
Excerpted from Gun Guys by Dan Baum. Copyright © 2013 by Dan Baum. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Dan Baum discussed Gun Guys on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes on March 9; his appearance can be seen below: