Why No One Is Winning the Gun Debate
Apr 14, 2015
By Catherine Lutz, guest blogger
As the gun debate intensifies and becomes more and more partisan and polarized, lost in the noise are voices like Dick Metcalf, a historian, writer, and lifetime gun owner who believes strongly in the Second Amendment and regulated armament.
At the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, Metcalf discussed how his views on firearms training got him terminated from Guns and Ammo magazine, a publication he’d been writing for for 37 years.
In a column he wrote in late 2013, which had been assigned by his editors and read and vetted by several people prior to publication, Metcalf advocated for training requirements for concealed-carry permits and background checks.
“Infringement is not by definition regulation, and regulation is not by definition infringement,” said Metcalf, referring to the phrasing of the Second Amendement during a session entitled "Americans, Guns, and the Future." Making the analogy of needing to pass a test to obtain a permit to drive a vehicle, he added, “Everything’s regulated, but everything’s not infringed, and that’s an important distinction.”
The backlash was fierce and voluminous, and Guns and Ammo’s parent company, unprepared for the social media onslaught, terminated Metcalf as a columnist. Part of the problem, he said, was the misleading headline given to his column, “Let’s Talk Limits,” which many readers probably didn’t get past. But the main issue is the increasingly vocal and influential extremist views — people on the pointed end of the bell curve, according to Metcalf, who don’t want firearms regulated by anything more than the US Constitution.
“This is a consumer publication for gun fans, and there’s a certain set of limits where discussion is allowed,” said Metcalf, in answer to a question about people gravitating more and more toward media that reflects their views rather than challenges them.
Metcalf pointed out that his moderate views on regulation and background checks are often supported by both the gun industry and the public. Shortly after the column was published, he was welcomed at a trade show of a national sports shooting organization, and didn't hear a single word of criticism. Illinois expanded its background check law without issue, he explained, and even the NRA (“the most effective lobbying organization the United States has ever produced”) sometimes supports universal background checks.
But an ever-widening political gap and the culture wars — between urban and rural, red states and blue states — that politicians and pundits stoke do not give Metcalf much to be optimistic about in the gun debate.
“I think it’s an unbridgeable gap, because nobody will ever trust the other. If you’re talking about the polarity in American politics, learning to trust one another on this issue or any other — Disneyland!” he said.
Those on both sides of the argument frequently cite the Second Amendment to bolster their arguments. Metcalf, a scholar and teacher of early American history and firearms regulation, said the framers of the amendment were spelling out something that didn't merit a lot of discussion because everybody took it for granted — an individual right to bear arms. The Constitution had already given the federal government authority over the militia — hence the introductory phrase about "a well-regulated militia" — and were clarifying the people's right in the second phrase. But that same language indicates that the right to bear arms is not an absolute one without regulation — and quite the opposite, Metcalf noted.
"Now I'm not an originalist," he said. "Society changes; society evolves. We have new problems to face; we have new challenges. We have to adapt the Constitution, which is a living document, to our new reality, and that takes change, and that may take amendment. It may sometime take another constitutional convention."
Listen to the entirety of the session — which Metcalf concludes with a call for firearms familiarization in the schools.