Politics & Policy

Mind You Don’t Get Zumboed

Conservative candidates beware of angering gun enthusiasts.

My town’s outdoor shooting range closed at the end of December. This wasn’t particularly political, except in the negative sense — the sense, I mean, that there was not enough political noise from local shooting-sports enthusiasts to keep the thing open. The town had been leasing the land from a local sand’n’gravel firm, and the firm decided they now wanted the land for their own use. End of shooting range. I now have the choice of driving twenty miles to an indoor range, or forty miles to an outdoor one.

#ad#I can’t truthfully claim great hardship here. I am way down at the dilettante end of the shooting-sports spectrum. For me, the range was a place to let off a little steam once or twice a month by popping off a few dozen rounds from my handguns at paper targets 15 or 25 yards away. Most users of our town range are rifle shooters who actually need an outdoor facility. These are the people really taking a loss.

The lack of a spirited response was mainly due to a sense of inevitability. When the range opened thirty years ago, this stretch of Long Island was still agricultural. Since then it has become part of the outermost New York suburbs, the potato fields gradually giving way to industrial parks and housing estates. As these developments closed in on the range, there was a rising murmur of complaints from homeowners and businesses, egged on by anti-gun activists in some cases I am sure, about noise, along with claims of spent bullets found in back yards. The range responded with ever-stricter safety rules — it was the best-disciplined range I have ever shot on — but a general, fatalistic feeling developed that a well-populated suburban zone is not really the place for an outdoor shooting range. Then the sand’n’gravel people decided not to renew the lease, and that was that.

The loss of one outdoor range is not the end of the world for shooting sports. It does, though, illustrate the kind of slow abrasion of Second Amendment rights, and of shooting facilities, that has been going on for the past half-century. A sixty-something friend who was born and raised in the next town over likes to reminisce fondly about how, as a 13-year-old, he used to stroll down the street with a rifle under his arm. Try that nowadays, and there’d be a SWAT team rappelling down on you from helicopters overhead. “Heck, we used to take our guns to school.” Try that nowadays…

All of which is preface to the following statement: Gun lovers in the U.S.A. are in a posture of permanent, wary defense. As the case of my town range shows, it’s not just the anti-gun lobbies, it’s the slow, general drift of post-industrial civilization. Potato fields are giving way to suburbs all over, and suburbs are not very gun-friendly.

And that helps explain last week’s huge and passionate reaction to Jim Zumbo’s blog comment, the story of the year in shooting circles.

Zumbo is — though it would be more accurate, as we shall see, to say was — a writer, educator, and lecturer on outdoor sports, mainly hunting. He lives in a log cabin near Cody, Wyoming, and is a 42-year member of the National Rifle Association (who, by the way, have just started a spiffy “NAR News” website). He had a show on the Outdoor Channel, a column in Outdoor Life, and gun-company sponsors paying him retainers and helping fund his hunting trips. He was on the advisory board of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance. Life was pretty good for Jim… until February 16.

That Friday Jim was out in the field in Wyoming on a coyote hunt with some other outdoor-sports writers and a couple of fellows from the Remington Arms Company. Back at camp, Jim filed a report on his Outdoor Life blog. In that report he passed some remarks about a certain category of long guns, popularly called “black rifles,” modeled on military assault rifles like the famous Soviet-made AK-47, or the ArmaLite favored by the Irish Republican Army. One of the guides had told Jim that these “black rifles” are often used to hunt coyotes with, a thing Jim apparently did not know. He sounded off about this on his blog:

I call them “assault” rifles, which may upset some people. 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. … Sorry, folks, in my humble opinion, these things have no place in hunting. We don’t need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them, which is an obvious concern. I’ve always been comfortable with the statement that hunters don’t use assault rifles. We’ve always been proud of our “sporting firearms.” This really has me concerned. As hunters, we don’t need the image of walking around the woods carrying one of these weapons. To most of the public, an assault rifle is a terrifying thing. Let’s divorce ourselves from them. I say game departments should ban them from the praries [sic] and woods.

The gun websites lit up like a Hamas wedding party using tracer rounds. At the time of writing, a week later, Jim has lost his show, his columns, and his sponsors. He is penniless and disgraced. His lecture bookings will likely be canceled. I have not yet heard that he has been drummed out of the NRA, with Wayne LaPierre himself ripping off Jim’s buttons and epaulettes while the NRA band plays the Dead March from Saul, but it can only be a matter of time. Some of the stuff has been really vituperative — this, for instance. Note the graphics: “Jim Zumbo — Quisling is Spoken Here”; “P***ing on Your Gun Rights with Zumbo.” The piling-on was so intense it has spawned a new verb: “to zumbo,” meaning to annihilate, by use of the internet, the career of one who violates the solidarity of a common enterprise.

It was hard to find anyone speaking up on Zumbo’s behalf; though there were, along with the vituperation, some calls for civility from anti-Zumbo bloggers like author and outdoorsman Steve Bodio. (That blog of Steve’s, by the way, includes Jim Zumbo’s public apology, which of course did nothing to abate the storm.)

It helps to understand what’s going on if you remember that there are subcultures within the gun culture, and these subcultures do not always see eye to eye. There are the hunting-outdoors gun people; there are the target-shooting range people; there are the military-weapons buffs, the skeet-and-trap folk, home-security specialists, the antique-weapons crowd, and so on. (You know you’re graced with the presence of an antique-weapons enthusiast down at the range when you hear a sort of WHOOOMPF! and see a vast cloud of dense white smoke coming towards you. That was a pan of black powder going off.) Of course, there is lots of overlap — the range is always more crowded just before hunting season, as the hunters prepare for business — but there are frictions, too.

As the Zumbo case illustrates, the point of maximum friction is between hunters and the rest. There is a lurking suspicion among non-hunting gun sportsmen that the hunters will sell them down the river, if some clever politician can clinch the deal. As an e-correspondent of mine put it:

A problem with the duck hunter crowd is that politicians try to take away our handguns or my black rifles, but insist they’ll never go after your over-under. The duck hunters nod and let the confiscation proceed, and before long all that’s left are the duck hunters, who have no support as their shotguns are confiscated.

The mirror-image among hunters is a certain disdain for weapons that, in the hunter’s opinion, are no use in the field, or are in some way “unsporting.” This usually includes any weapon that can fire on fully automatic. If you imagine a 1920s street gangster bringing down a deer with a tommy gun, you will see their point. With some hunters, the prejudice extends to semi-automatics, or even to anything that just looks “military.”

What the Zumbo case shows is that these minor differences will be brushed aside when gun enthusiasts sense a threat to their rights. Hunting-outdoor sportsmen piled on with the rest — though in general, like Steve Bodio, with a bit more regard for civility. As I started out by saying, for all the magnificent achievements of the NRA in keeping gun rights secure, gun hobbyists and sportsmen live in a state of mild, if permanent, insecurity, and our natural posture is defensive.

The political lesson to be taken by any contender for the Republican nomination who is seriously short of creds on gun rights issues — no names, no pack drill — is that Second Amendment enthusiasts stand head and shoulders above other conservative groups in their passion and solidarity on behalf of their constitutional rights. You will need to work very hard and tread v‑e‑r‑y carefully if you want the support of this large and well-organized constituency. Set a foot wrong and you could find yourself being zumboed!

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