“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.