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Banished for questioning the gospel of guns


BARRY, Ill. » The byline of Dick Metcalf, one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists, has gone missing. It has been removed from Guns & Ammo magazine, where his widely read column once ran on the back page. He no longer stars on a popular television show about firearms. Gun companies have stopped flying him around the world and sending him the latest weapons to review.

In late October, Metcalf wrote a column that the magazine titled "Let’s Talk Limits," which debated gun laws.

"The fact is," wrote Metcalf, who has taught history at Cornell and Yale, "all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be."

The backlash was swift, and fierce. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Death threats poured in by email. His television program was pulled from the air.

Just days after the column appeared, Metcalf said, his editor called to tell him that two major gun manufacturers had said "in no uncertain terms" that they could no longer do business with InterMedia Outdoors, the company that publishes Guns & Ammo and co-produces his TV show, if he continued to work there. He was let go immediately.

"I’ve been vanished, disappeared," Metcalf, 67, said in an interview in December on his gun range here, about 100 miles north of St. Louis, surrounded by snow-blanketed fields and towering grain elevators. "Now you see him. Now you don’t."

He is unsure of his next move, but fears he has become a pariah in the gun industry, to which, he said, he has devoted nearly his entire adult life.

His experience sheds light on the close-knit world of gun journalism, where editors and reporters say there is little room for nuance in the debate over gun laws. Moderate voices that might broaden the discussion from within are silenced. When writers stray from the party line promoting an absolutist view of an unfettered right to bear arms, their publications – often under pressure from advertisers – excommunicate them.

"We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment," said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. "The time for ceding some rational points is gone."

There have been other cases like Metcalf’s.

In 2012, Jerry Tsai, the editor of Recoil magazine, wrote that the Heckler & Koch MP7A1 gun, designed for law enforcement, was "unavailable to civilians and for good reason."

He was pressured to step down, and despite apologizing, has not written since.

In 2007, Jim Zumbo, by then the author of 23 hunting books, wrote a blog post for Outdoor Life’s website suggesting that military-style rifles were "terrorist" weapons, best avoided by hunters. His writing, television and endorsement deals were quickly put on hiatus.

Garry James, a senior editor at Guns & Ammo, said in a phone interview several weeks ago that its readers were the magazine’s main concern and its editorial independence was not at risk. But, he added, "advertisers obviously always have power, and you always feel some pressure." He declined to discuss Metcalf’s matter specifically, and the company did not respond to further phone calls and emails seeking comment on other aspects of the operation.

Metcalf said he was told that advertisers feared customers would boycott their products if they continued to advertise on TV shows and magazines featuring his work.

Two major advertisers with InterMedia are the gun companies Ruger and Remington Arms Co. Ruger’s general counsel, Kevin B. Reid Sr., said in an email that it did have a conference call with InterMedia to discuss the column, but that it was informed "that the decision had already been made to part ways with Mr. Metcalf." He denied Ruger pressured InterMedia to fire Metcalf.

A spokesman for Remington did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Editors of gun magazines are unapologetic in acknowledging that their content caters to the gun enthusiasts who believe their rights are under constant threat, and to the firearms companies that account for much of their revenue. At some magazines, said Jan Libourel, a former editor of both Guns & Ammo Handguns and Gun World magazines, "the editors only want editorial content for some key advertisers."

Reporters and editors say that reviews are often written in close consultation with manufacturers. If a gun is judged to be of poor quality, magazines will quietly send it back for improvements rather than writing a negative review. The system is broadly accepted at these publications, gun writers say.

Venola, the former Guns & Ammo editor, described the relationship between the magazine’s editors and the gun makers as a necessarily cozy one.

"You have to be in cahoots with the manufacturer, in order to make the publication appeal to the readership," he said. "Say you write about boats. At some point you’re going to end up on the sun deck of a boat, downing sundowners after testing one, with the guy who makes it. It’s just how it happens."

(Venola had murder charges against him dismissed in Arizona last year. He said he was defending himself after fatally shooting a neighbor during an argument.)

Metcalf said he invited a reporter to his home because he despairs that the debate over gun policy in America is so bitterly polarized and dominated by extreme voices. He says he is still contemplating how a self-described "Second Amendment fundamentalist" who keeps a .38 snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver within easy reach has been ostracized from his community.

"Compromise is a bad word these days," he said. "People think it means giving up your principles."

A trim, avuncular man, Metcalf lives on a farm that has been in his family since 1837. The heads of 23 giant bucks line the walls of his shooting club. Plump wild turkeys gather by the dozen nearby.

Metcalf began his journalism career with a column in Shooting Times, a more technical gun publication, explaining the patchwork of gun laws across America to readers, while teaching at Cornell. Since then, he said, he has written for dozens of gun magazines within the group now owned by InterMedia, culminating with the back-page column in Guns & Ammo.

In the column that led to his dismissal, he said too many gun owners believed that the Constitution prohibits any regulation of firearms. He noted that all rights are regulated, like freedom of speech. "You cannot falsely and deliberately shout, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater," he wrote.

"The question is, when does regulation become infringement?" he continued. Metcalf ended the column arguing that requiring 16 hours of training to qualify for a concealed carry license was not an infringement.

Though his editors had approved the column before it went to press, they reversed course after publication. Jim Bequette, editor of Guns & Ammo, issued an apology to the magazine’s roughly 400,000 readers. He told them Metcalf had been dismissed, and that he, Bequette, would move forward plans to hand the editorship on to his successor.

Acknowledging that some readers were "hopping mad," he wrote: "Let me be clear: Our commitment to the Second Amendment is unwavering."

Metcalf says his only regret about the column is that it was too short.

"Some topics you should never try and discuss too briefly because they can’t be dealt with like that," he said.

He knows that the odds of returning seamlessly to his old career are slim. When people ask him what’s next, he shows them a photograph taken shortly after InterMedia dismissed him. In it, he holds a gun, and a sign that reads "Will Hunt For Food."


Ravi Somaiya, New York Times

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