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.
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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.

"As for federal laws, there are eight, and only two have been enforced in any significant way, ever. We can't afford and we don't have the personnel to enforce the laws that we have on the books right now. What good is it going to do to enact any others?"

"Do you think universal background checks make sense," Brownstein asked, "particularly that they be extended to gun shows?"

"This is an interesting one. What defines a background check? How far do you go with it?"

Metcalf mentions that when Illinois recently passed a law requiring a universal background check, the NRA actually supported it—because they also passed a concealed carry law. But don't call it compromise.

"Compromise is a bad word these days," Metcalf said. "Say conciliation. That's how you sit down with someone who has different principles, and you get something positive done."

***

A critical roll in Metcalf's termination, Brownstein noted, was that of pressure from the advertisers in Guns & Ammo.

"I believe that everyone I knew, even the people who worked for the companies responsible for the advertising pressure—because they are hearing [from customers], 'We'll never buy another one of your products if you continue to advertise in this magazine that has this anti-American traitor in it—but they all believe it," Metcalf said. "I can't tell you how many senior executives at firearms companies, over a beer when no one's watching, will say, 'You do know we realize that, of course, at least a third of our customers shouldn't be let within five miles of a gun.'"

"There are consumer publications for gun fans," Metcalf said. "There are consumer publications for motorcycle fans. [What would happen if you] start writing about whether or not there should be helmet laws in those magazines? Special interest publications are all over the place, and there is a certain set of limits where discussion is allowed."

Homogenous media communities with very different understandings of reality, where challenging prevailing assumptions is out of bounds, may be growing in popularity. "People are looking to media now to be a cheerleader for their point of view," Brownstein said. "There's less interest in dialogue over competing points of view than there is for affirmation of [the reader's] own point of view."

"In the 1970s and 80s when I wrote things that generated a substantial response, that would be about 10 letters," Metcalf said. "Generally speaking they weren't quite so outrageous [as the responses writers receive today]. My wife was reading some of the responses and said, 'I didn't know you could send emails written in crayon.'"

Metcalf said it seems logical that if we can require people to get training before the operate a car, we can require them to get training before operating a firearm. 

Metcalf noted that the NRA claims 5 million members. "I think that's inflated, but even if you take them at their word, around 80 million Americans own firearms.  To say that it represents the firearm-owning public [is inaccurate]. The NRA is one of the most effective lobbying organizations that the United States has ever produced."

To what extent is the gun debate actually about guns? Brownstein asked, citing that only 28 percent of people in urban areas live in a home with a gun, but 59 percent in rural areas do. White people are twice as likely as black people to live in a home with a gun. Evangelical Christians are much more likely to own guns than are secular people.

"We know that gun ownership tracks a lot of other cultural divides that shape the partisan and ideological standoff in America," Brownstein said. "Is all the passion about guns a broader statement about who defines what America values?"

"I think it's an unbridgeable gap, because neither side will trust the other. I'm afraid I'm not optimistic in the aftermath of what happened to me."

Metcalf said he remains in favor of concealed carry, and that owning a gun is central to the moral responsibility to provide for a person's own defense. "The worst idea I've heard this year is that gun-free zones are safe. I think we've proven that's not true."

"How have we seen that gun-free zones are not safe?" asked a man in the audience.

"Where have all the mass murders occurred?" Metcalf countered.

"Not in Canada," the man replied. After a tense pause, a few people laughed. Then the room burst into applause.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 
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