Why We Can't Talk About Gun Control

When one writer suggested that guns can be regulated without anyone's rights being infringed, he lost his job. Dick Metcalf told his story this morning to a skeptical crowd.

ASPEN, Colo.—"I pose this question, Mr. Metcalf, as a hunter of birds. I have a concealed carry permit for a pistol. And I think the gun laws that are on the books today are ineffective because they're not enforced."

Dick Metcalf, the historian and long-time individual-gun-rights supporter agreed, nodding from the stage.

"When I got my concealed-carry permit," the man in the audience continued, "one of the questions I had to answer was, 'Are you a fugitive from justice?'"

The rest of the crowd laughed.

"I asked the sheriff, does anyone ever answer yes to that? And he said, 'You'd be surprised.' But I think we need more regulation. And if I were your boss, and you'd written that column, I wouldn't have terminated you. I'd have given you a promotion."

Dick Metcalf (Aspen Institute)

But that man was not Dick Metcalf's boss when, last year, Metcalf published a column in Guns & Ammo magazine that, in his words, ended his journalism career.

Metcalf analyzed his downfall this morning with Atlantic Media editorial director Ronald Brownstein before a standing-room-only crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival (put on by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The nidus was a back-page opinion column that carried the incendiary headline, "Let's Talk Limits." It was a headline that, like so many headlines, was not written by the author, and that many vocal detractors did not read past.

In the column, Metcalf wrote that he did not believe it was an infringement of the Second Amendment to require some training before a person can have a concealed carry. He added that states can have a universal background check law without him feeling infringed upon.

That did not go over well.

The column appeared in the December 2013 issue of Guns & Ammo, but subscribers started getting it in late October. Within three days, Metcalf said, as responses poured in—by mail, in forums, and on social media—from what he called the pointed end of the bell curve, people who "think the constitution is the only law we need," Metcalf was labeled a “gun control collaborator” and “modern-day Benedict Arnold.”

"What struck me most about what happened to me was that this huge media corporation [Intermedia, the owner of Guns & Ammo] was absolutely unprepared for the onslaught of social-media negativity," Metcalf said, "when we went over that line and dared ask the question, whether people might think about whether or not regulation is by definition infringement."

The Second Amendment says the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, Metcalf noted, "not that it shall not be regulated." Rather the first four words of the amendment, "a well regulated militia," not only allow but mandate regulation.

"Everything is regulated, but everything is not infringed. Not all regulation is infringement. Is your right to drive a car being infringed by a speed limit?"  

Metcalf got a call from the executive vice president of the media company that owns Guns & Ammo on November 6 telling him that his association had been terminated. The editor of the magazine, Jim Bequette, announced Metcalf's termination and issued a pandering apology to readers:

I understand what our valued readers want. I understand what you believe in when it comes to gun rights, and I believe the same thing. I made a mistake by publishing the column. I thought it would generate a healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights. I miscalculated, pure and simple. I was wrong, and ask your forgiveness. ... Guns & Ammo will never fail to vigorously lead in the struggle for our Second Amendment rights.

"What was my primary reaction to this?" Metcalf said. "Disappointment. But I was not surprised."


Dick Metcalf grew up on a Midwestern farm with a .22 rifle behind the kitchen door. He has been shooting since he was five years old and has been a member of the NRA since middle school.

"It was a tool for me," Metcalf said. "Like Mom's hot skillet; don't stick your hand on it. Like Dad's power saw; don't stick your finger in it. A gun; don't stand in front of it."

Metcalf went on to become a competitive shooter who has hunted on five continents, as well as a historian. He has been studying and writing about the Bill of Rights and firearms for 37 years. He has taught at Yale and Cornell, enacted concealed-carry laws across the country, and authored pro-firearms legislation.

But he is not opposed to mandatory training for gun owners, and tighter regulation of firearms.

"We have over 75,000 firearms rules and regulations on the books, and approximately three of them are ever enforced," Metcalf explained, to some nervous laughter in the audience.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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