Ideology and language: Why a gun columnist was fired


[Updated 8:51 p.m., Jan. 6]

Today’s (Sunday, Jan. 5) New York Times reports:

BARRY, Ill. — The byline of Dick Metcalf, one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists, has gone missing…. 

In late October, Mr. Metcalf wrote a column that the magazine titled “Let’s Talk Limits,” which debated gun laws. “The fact is,” wrote Mr. Metcalf, who has taught history at Cornell and Yale, “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”  

“Let’s Talk Limits” had a subtitle not mentioned in the Times article, and it could have been inflammatory enough to draw ire from Second Amendment advocates. The subtitle: “Do certain firearms regulations really constitute infringement?”

With that and what others have called warmed-over anti-gun arguments, Metcalf’s column in Guns & Ammo magazine was ended.

Most online articles about the incident (many of which appeared in November) have been either mainstream reportage or gun-rights outrage. I found one article that actually took the time to refute Metcalf’s premises, which was A.W.R. Hawkins’ explanation at Breitbart.com.

At the business level, the reason for Metcalf’s firing should not have surprised anyone: “two major gun manufacturers” threatened to pull advertising, the Times reported. 

At the idea level, however, something else is going on, as illustrated in this paragraph from the Times article:

“We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment,” said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. “The time for ceding some rational points is gone.” 

There you have it, the paradigm of all ideologues. It’s only applied to one side of one issue, but that’s actually perfect, because its form is the only universally shared ideological belief in our time, regardless of position or point of view.

This ideological belief, or perhaps meta-belief, says, “Things are so bad, we are so threatened, we cannot grant any rational points to the other side.”

I will quickly concede some circumstances call for uncompromising, absolutist, inflexible positions, but do you not see that unwillingness to cede “some rational points” in every debate these days, about every social, political, or cultural issue?

So Venola says, “The time for ceding some rational points is gone.” I wonder how many people reacted to that sentence as if fingernails were scraping down a chalkboard.

However, I think a person can hold a very strong, uncompromising belief without being ideological about it, without ever ignoring “rational points” on the other side.

That’s possible because, as Dr. Thomas Sowell once said, it’s not enough to identify a problem. Identifying a problem is the easy part. A person must also determine whether a solution is possible.

You’re stuck on an island with a friend, the Sowell argument goes, and your friend has acute appendicitis. Your only tool is a wooden spoon. The available tool, in this circumstance, can’t fix the problem. The problem is real and serious — that appendix is going to burst, and your friend faces a certain, painful death. But what is a wooden spoon going to accomplish? A fast-track to rupturing? Sometimes we just don’t have what we need, and maybe our emotional, non-rational populace just can’t accept unsolvable problems.

Maybe that’s the deal with gun rights in our society — as Hawkins points out, the right to self-defense is a natural right that’s too basic to violate. Some analogies, like one Metcalf used about automobile licenses, fail because transportation by car is neither a natural right nor protected in the Constitution. We might just always have problems with guns, but maybe the alternative — violating the natural right to self-defense — is just too risky and problematic.

How risky and problematic? Well, let’s put it this way. If drug cartels and gangs can smuggle heavy-duty weaponry into the United States, I want the option of having heavy-duty weaponry in my home. I have three children. If I need to defend my home, I won’t ask Jimmy Carter to drop by for a chat with gang members and a probe of their childhoods. I’m not expecting the cops to be quick enough, either.

For that matter, consider the general failure of prohibitions. Drug laws haven’t kept drugs away — why does anyone think gun laws will keep guns away? Abortion is legal, and one of the arguments for keeping it legal is that women will get abortions regardless of the procedure’s legality, so our society ought to give them presumably clean, safe, sanitary places for abortions (despite this sicko’s once-legal clinic) instead of “back-alley” abortions.

So I’m not convinced that even the most restrictive gun laws in the world would keep guns away from the outlaws. Whether the argument seems tired and over-used or not, I don’t think law-abiding citizens win in a society of gun restrictions. (A new study out of Quinnipiac University offers interesting information along these lines.)

But I’m also willing to cede “some rational points,” and I hope that willingness never goes away. I want to be able to understand and even feel the other person’s point of view, even if I can’t give it rational assent.

But any understanding of Metcalf’s point of view was lost in anger and outrage. Following the offending column, the Times reports:

The backlash was swift, and fierce. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Death threats poured in by email. His television program was pulled from the air.

Just days after the column appeared, Mr. Metcalf said, his editor called to tell him that two major gun manufacturers had said “in no uncertain terms” that they could no longer do business with InterMedia Outdoors, the company that publishes Guns & Ammo and co-produces his TV show, if he continued to work there.

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