When a magazine’s troubles make it to the front page of the New York Times business section, it’s officially a media story.
By then, however, I already was writing this column.
Guns & Ammo is a slick monthly that I flip through while I’m waiting for prescriptions to be filled. Conceal/carry pistols and assault-style rifles are popular features.
The magazine shares the National Rifle Association’s take-no-prisoners approach in the firefight over gun control, and that helps explain why the December issue left Guns & Ammo badly bruised by a nasty recoil.
The affair also recalls the maxim, “Those whom the gods would punish, they first make mad.”
Mad as in nutty, not angry.
For Guns & Ammo readers, it’s nutty and angry.
Trouble began when columnist Dick Metcalf uttered this heresy: “The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated.” Worse, he said reasonable regulation doesn’t violate the Second Amendment guarantee that the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Metcalf might as well have played Russian Roulette with a single shot pistol.
Readers cried betrayal. If he weren’t fired, they’d cancel subscriptions and boycott advertisers.
That’s sticky for glossy monthlies catering to shooters, drivers, anglers, boaters; they’re filled with relentlessly upbeat features and writers and editors go to great lengths to avoid offending anyone.
Especially advertisers. That’s why so many product reviews read like endorsements rather than critiques.
A dirty secret reinforces this relationship: There aren’t enough new buyers to support the gun industry.
So manufacturers depend on magazines like Guns & Ammo to persuade firearms owners to buy more new weapons and ammunition.
To calm the storm, editor Jim Bequette fired Metcalf.
Then Bequette accelerated what he said was his planned retirement after a groveling apology for publishing the column.
In his Times interview, Metcalf charged that Guns & Ammo acted under pressure from two unnamed major gun manufacturers.
No surprise, the Times added.
“Gun magazines reportedly bend over backwards for their advertisers. … 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.”
Then there is the not-so-secret truth: Massacres in American theaters and schools bring new calls for gun control, and that’s good for gun makers and magazines’ advertising and circulation.
“Traditionally, these magazines do better when gun owners feel their rights are being threatened,” said Steve Cohn, editor-in-chief of Media Industry Newsletter, told the Times.
A year after the Sandy Hook grade school killings, the firearms industry predicted that its revenues would grow more than 20 percent in 2013 to almost $15 billion.
And a lot of those buyers would be turning to magazines like Guns & Ammo for features and ads to guide their additions to their armories.
That helps explain why departing editor Bequette wasn’t content with sending Metcalf to the wall. Here’s what contrite Bequette told readers:
“As editor of Guns & Ammo, I owe each and every reader a personal apology. No excuses, no backtracking.
“Dick Metcalf’s ‘Backstop’ column in the December issue has aroused unprecedented controversy. Readers are hopping mad about it, and some are questioning Guns & Ammo’s commitment to the Second Amendment. I understand why.
“Let me be clear: Our commitment to the Second Amendment is unwavering. It has been so since the beginning. Historically, our tradition in supporting the Second Amendment has been unflinching. No strings attached. It is no accident that when others in the gun culture counseled compromise in the past, hard-core thinkers. . . found a place and a voice in these pages.
“When large firearms advocacy groups were going soft in the 1970s, they were prodded in the right direction, away from the pages of Guns & Ammo.
“In publishing Metcalf’s column, I was untrue to that tradition, and for that I apologize. His views do not represent mine — nor, most important, Guns & Ammo’s. It is very clear to me that they don’t reflect the views of our readership, either.
“Dick Metcalf has had a long and distinguished career as a gun writer, but his association with Guns & Ammo has officially ended.
“I once again offer my personal apology. 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 I ask your forgiveness ... Guns & Ammo will never fail to vigorously lead the struggle for our Second Amendment rights, and with vigorous young editorial leadership … it will be done even better in the future.”
All of this follows the August 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that individuals may own guns for lawful purposes.
Guns & Ammo’s reactions to reader fury suggests there is little hope for what Bequette called “a healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights.” Even considering alternatives proved toxic.
So what did Metcalf say beyond the obvious, that every constitutional right brings with it regulations? He repeated the Second Amendment, adding, “those last four words say ‘shall not be infringed.’ They do not say, ‘shall not be regulated’ … All constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be … The question is, when does regulation become infringement?”
Let me get personal. Along with other First Amendment defenders, I accept some regulation of assembly, speech, press, religion, etc. As Metcalf said, regulation must be fought when it becomes infringement.
So it is with most Second Amendment advocates whom I’ve read and heard. They accept firearms/law instruction before getting a state handgun conceal/carry license. They accept bans on gun sales to children, dangerously mentally ill individuals and convicted felons. And I guess that most people who want a legal and fully automatic machine gun, submachine gun or assault rifle pay the required $200 federal tax.
In short, even people who believe themselves to be Second Amendment absolutists often accept some regulation.
So Metcalf was right and he paid the price.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: firstname.lastname@example.org