As a self-described liberal who enjoys shooting guns, Dan Baum finds himself in uncomfortable territory. He loves the cold heft of a rifle in his hands at a shooting range, but when it comes to the organization that purports to speak for gun guys like him — the National Rifle Association — he bristles at their politics and scare tactics.

Polemicists looking for fodder on either side of the gun-control debate should look somewhere other than Gun Guys: A Road Trip, a book that is as much a political treatise as it is a work of embedded anthropology on American gun culture. It’s a welcome alternative to the reactionary tit-for-tat and rushed legislation that follow on the heels of every mass shooting, and its careful balance serves as a stumbling block for both Sarah Palin-ogling assault rifle fanatics and hand-wringing Dianne Feinstein acolytes who talk about the semi-automatic AR-15 like a forbidden fruit that can bring only death.

Seeking to better understand the American fascination with guns and the fracture in the modern gun-control debate, Baum sets off from his home in liberal Boulder, Colo. to engage with red-meat gun-lovers from coast to coast. He vows to stop in every gun shop he finds along the way, and his descriptions of interactions with gun-store clerks serve as illuminating vignettes. Often, the salesmen smirk at his half-convincing undercover disguise — an NRA hat on his balding pate — but any time he reveals the concealed pistol he’s packing in his pleated dress pants, he’s instantly welcomed as a member of the tribe.

One thing Baum does well is describe the visceral joy of firing a gun, be it a bolt-action relic or a plastic-bedecked modern assault weapon. He also writes at length on the feeling of carrying a weapon in public. He makes a brief foray into the Wild West practice of open carry but is amazed when no one shopping in Whole Foods bats an eye at the deadly weapon hanging by his waist. So he takes a class and earns his concealed-carry permit, and that’s where it really gets interesting.

Crossing the country in a Camry with a handgun pressed against his kidney, he gives a lot of thought to what he describes as a “sheepdog sense of guardianship” that enlightened gun owners begin to feel for their fellow men. He vividly describes feelings of danger lurking around the corner and the weight of an awesome responsibility. “I was the vigilant one, protector of the flock, the coiled wrath of God,” he writes.

Baum captures a wide variety of settings and gun-guy types in his cross-country dispatches. Particularly affecting chapters include “Flicked Off,” which describes the senseless murder of a young man from New Orleans, and “Condition Black,” in which a down-on-his-luck auto worker from Detroit survives a mugging at gunpoint and begins a crusade to arm African Americans in the name of self-defense and black power. Other chapters are plain fun, including “Hogzilla,” which was adapted for a feature in Oxford American and describes the pell-mell unregulated hunting of feral hogs in rural Texas.

With a patient empathy that calls to mind the Civil War reenactor ethnography Confederates in the Attic, Baum limns his gun-guy subjects with surprising nuance. From the community college dropout who wants to buy the weapons he’s seen in video games to the husband and wife who travel the country participating in run-and-gun submachine gun competitions, Baum describes his subjects partly as curiosities, partly as kindred spirits.

And that’s where it gets confusing sometimes. Gun Guys is an impressive exercise in hearing out the other side’s arguments, but despite his claims of left-wing bona fides, he often goes for entire chapters without providing much leavening to the Republican Party line his interview subjects are feeding him. Baum makes no bones about including himself in the narrative, yet it is often unclear exactly what he believes. His politics sound unsettled, a quality that will endear him to open-minded moderates but infuriate most people who have already decided where they stand on the issue.