By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007
SEATTLE -- Modern hunters rarely become more famous than Jim Zumbo. A mustachioed, barrel-chested outdoors entrepreneur who lives in a log cabin near Yellowstone National Park, he has spent much of his life writing for prominent outdoors magazines, delivering lectures across the country and starring in cable TV shows about big-game hunting in the West.
Zumbo's fame, however, has turned to black-bordered infamy within America's gun culture -- and his multimedia success has come undone. It all happened in the past week, after he publicly criticized the use of military-style assault rifles by hunters, especially those gunning for prairie dogs.
"Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity," Zumbo wrote in his blog on the Outdoor Life Web site. The Feb. 16 posting has since been taken down. "As hunters, we don't need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them. . . . I'll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles."
The reaction -- from tens of thousands of owners of assault rifles across the country, from media and manufacturers rooted in the gun business, and from the National Rifle Association -- has been swift, severe and unforgiving. Despite a profuse public apology and a vow to go hunting soon with an assault weapon, Zumbo's career appears to be over.
His top-rated weekly TV program on the Outdoor Channel, his longtime career with Outdoor Life magazine and his corporate ties to the biggest names in gunmaking, including Remington Arms Co., have been terminated or are on the ropes.
The NRA on Thursday pointed to the collapse of Zumbo's career as an example of what can happen to anyone, including a "fellow gun owner," who challenges the right of Americans to own or hunt with assault-style firearms.
From his home near Cody, Wyo., Zumbo declined repeated telephone requests for comment. He is a 40-year NRA member and has appeared with NRA officials in 70 cities, according to his Web site.
In announcing that it was suspending its professional ties with Zumbo, the NRA -- a well-financed gun lobby that for decades has fought attempts to regulate assault weapons -- noted that the new Congress should pay careful attention to the outdoors writer's fate.
"Our folks fully understand that their rights are at stake," the NRA statement said. It warned that the "grassroots" passion that brought down Zumbo shows that millions of people would "resist with an immense singular political will any attempts to create a new ban on semi-automatic firearms."
Some outdoors writers drew a different lesson from Zumbo's horrible week.
"This shows the zealousness of gun owners to the point of actual foolishness," said Pat Wray, a freelance outdoors writer in Corvallis, Ore., and author of "A Chukar Hunter's Companion."
Wray said that what happened to Zumbo is a case study in how the NRA has trained members to attack their perceived enemies without mercy.
"For so many years, Zumbo has been a voice for these people -- for hunting and for guns -- and they just turned on him in an instant," Wray said. "He apologized all over himself, and it didn't do any good."
Zumbo's fall highlights a fundamental concern of the NRA and many champions of military-style firearms, according to people who follow the organization closely. They do not want American gun owners to make a distinction between assault weapons and traditional hunting guns such as shotguns and rifles. If they did, a rift could emerge between hunters, who tend to have the most money for political contributions to gun rights causes, and assault-weapon owners, who tend to have lots of passion but less cash.
The NRA appeared to be saying as much in its statement Thursday, when it emphasized that the Zumbo affair shows there is "no chance" that a "divide and conquer propaganda strategy" could ever succeed.
"Jim Zumbo Outdoors" was not broadcast as scheduled last week on the Outdoor Channel and will not air next week, said Mike Hiles, a spokesman for the channel. He said sponsors have requested that they be removed from the program. The show "will be in hiatus for an undetermined period of time," he said.
Zumbo's long career at Outdoor Life, which is owned by Time Inc., also came to a sudden end in the past week. Zumbo was hunting editor of the magazine, which is the nation's second-largest outdoors publication. He wrote his first story for Outdoor Life in 1962.
The magazine's editor in chief, Todd W. Smith, said that Zumbo submitted his resignation after hearing of the large number of readers (about 6,000, at last count) who had sent e-mails demanding his dismissal. Smith dismissed as "conjecture" a question about whether Zumbo would have been fired had he not resigned.
"Jim is a good guy, and I feel bad about this unfortunate situation," Smith said. "We are living in very delicate times. For someone to call these firearms 'terrorist' rifles, that is a flash-point word. You are painting a bunch of enthusiasts with the word. They don't like being called terrorists."
When he wrote his now-notorious blog entry, Zumbo was on a coyote hunt in Wyoming sponsored by Remington, a detail he noted in the entry.
That mention -- as it bounced around in recent days among a number of assault-weapon Web sites -- triggered a call for a boycott of Remington products.
That prompted Remington to issue a news release, saying that it has "severed all sponsorship ties with Mr. Zumbo effective immediately."
Remington chief executive Tommy Millner issued a personal appeal to gun owners who might be thinking about boycotting the company's products: "Rest assured that Remington not only does not support [Zumbo's] view, we totally disagree," Millner said. "I have no explanation for his perspective. I proudly own AR's and support everyone's right to do so!"
Zumbo, in his public apology, said that when he wrote the blog entry that criticized assault rifles, he was at the end of a long day's hunt.
"I was tired and exhausted," he wrote, "and I should have gone to bed early."