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Firing of Guns & Ammo editor highlights inconsistent gun owner reactions

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Guns & Ammo editor Jim Bequette announced yesterday that long-time Technical Editor Dick Metcalf’s “association with [the magazine] has officially ended.” The announcement follows a firestorm of gun owner criticism and subscription cancellation pledges after publication of a column in which Metcalf justified government gun regulations and dismissed those being infringements on the right to keep and bear arms.

“In publishing Metcalf’s column, I was untrue to that tradition, and for that I apologize,” Bequette admitted. “I was wrong, and I ask your forgiveness.”

The reaction among gun owners is mixed, with some accepting Bequette’s explanation and apology and others maintaining it is too little too late, and even questioning sincerity and motives. The decision to allow publication of the column was his, and the buck stops at his desk for the fallout from it, which includes the Brady Campaign using the G&A column to crow to its followers.

Will gun owners accept Bequette’s mea culpa and let bygones be bygones? And how would they respond to a similar admission and plea for forgiveness from Metcalf?

From a strictly human point of view, it’s a tragedy. Being a professional gun writer is a specialized craft, and opportunities to earn a living at it are few and far between. Devoting oneself to that as a career, getting it right most of the time and suddenly becoming not just unemployable, but widely excoriated, is a terrible outcome.

It’s fair to ask if some of the concerns raised by writer Bob Owens might soften demands for Metcalf’s head, and the uproar also raises inevitable comparisons to the way gun owners have reacted in the past to similar major foul-ups.

The infamous Jim Zumbo column in Outdoor Life, where he opined about semiautomatic firearms comes to mind.

“I call them ‘assault’ rifles, which may upset some people,” Zumbo wrote. “Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity. I'll go so far as to call them ‘terrorist’ rifles.”

Practically everyone associated with Zumbo, from his magazine to his sponsors, couldn’t put distance between them and him fast enough. Through the efforts of some, such as rocker/NRA director Ted Nugent and radio host Tom Gresham, Zumbo was able to somewhat rehabilitate his marketability and attract enough viewers and sponsors to resurrect his Outdoor Channel hunting show. He has since become a voice with long range for opposing that which he once ignorantly endorsed and for educating his fellow sportsmen.

There are other examples of individuals who benefited personally and professionally from the “gun culture,” but seemed to go out of their way to alienate its members. Some of these have also felt gun owner wrath, albeit with varying effects on their positions and stature.

Despite Joaquin Jackson’s badmouthing of semiautos and endorsement of magazine capacity bans, he remains an NRA director stumped for by the Nominating Committee -- and rather than admit he was wrong and apologize, he and the Association instead came out with an implausible (and some believe ghost-written) statement to address “misunderstandings” that still ended up disparaging the Second Amendment.

Even with the unpersuasive revisionist damage control explanation that he was talking about “fully automatic firearms,” Jackson’s revised position being effectively mirrored was enough to force the resignation of Recoil Magazine’s founding editor. Jerry Tsai paid a heavy price after he wrote that the Heckler & Koch “MP7A1 is unavailable to civilians and for good reason. We all know that’s technology no civvies should ever get to lay their hands on.”

Despite writing “I accept I made mistakes, and I apologize unreservedly,” Tsai is out and ostracized, and Jackson is still a Fairfax darling. And while Recoil is still recovering from the backlash, few threatened to cancel their NRA memberships.

Gun owners have also been forgiving (and forgetful) of another editorial “leader,” one who abandoned them in their hour of need, one who refused to apologize, and who remains defiant and dismissive of his critics.

The story is probably unknown to many, but at the time the Clinton “assault weapon ban” was being promoted, Field and Stream editor David E. Petzal was claiming “it took tremendous courage” for his magazine to go against the NRA.

"Gun owners -- all gun owners -- pay a heavy price for having to defend the availability of these weapons," Petzal wrote. "The American public -- and the gun-owning public; especially the gun-owning public -- would be better off without the hardcore military arms, which puts the average sportsman in a real dilemma … an Uzi or an AKM or an AK-47 should be no more generally available than a Claymore mine or a block of C4 explosive."

Unlike wine, Petzal has not improved with age.

“If Sarah Brady is smart -- and she is very smart -- she will comb through the same blogs and chatrooms I’ve been reading, excerpt some of the most vicious and foul-mouthed entries, print them up, and distribute them to Congress,” Petzal helpfully recommended to the gun-grabbers in his commentary on the Jim Zumbo affair.

Also helpful, as evidenced by the radical Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence seizing on it to bolster their case for further gun bans, was a 2003 poll by Petzal’s magazine concluding “Sixty-seven percent of Field & Stream readers do not consider assault weapons to be legitimate sporting guns.”

And rather than apologize for his earlier documented assertion recommending AK-47 availability be the same as with Claymores, Petzal denied he’d ever wanted the guns outlawed.

“As has been pointed out by those of you with long memories, I wrote a piece 13 years ago about the then-looming assault rifle ban,” he wrote in a follow-up to his Zumbo piece. “Nowhere in it did I endorse the ban, as some are claiming … Most important, you shouldn’t construe any of this as an apology. It isn’t.”

Nor should gun owners expect an apology from Field & Stream for naming Chuck Schumer a “hero” for backing a farm bill that had grants for farmers to open their land to hunters.

The question remains: Is Metcalf’s gun writing career salvageable? Is Tsai’s? Are they sorry for what they said and do they understand why it was wrong, or would sincere retractions and pleas for reconciliation be rejected? Can good yet come from the lessons learned, or are their opportunities in the field forever limited to a choice between utter professional destruction or the unapologetic stance that has succeeded for Jackson and Petzal with apparent gun owner blessing, at least in some quarters?

In the cases of Metcalf and Tsai, would it be productive if Nugent and Gresham were once more inclined to play the roles of educators and peacemakers?

Or if unrepentant, perhaps there would be a place for the exiled writers at “sporting” magazines appealing to Average Joes and proud MoveOn.org defenders.

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Also see, from Dave Workman: Guns & Ammo column on gun regulation costs writer his job.

UPDATE: Metcalf to appear Sunday on Tom Gresham's Gun Talk Radio.

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Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s PETA! The latest GUNS Magazine "Rights Watch" column is online, and you can read it before the issue hits the stands. Click here to read "Game of Drones.”

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