Last February, Jim Zumbo, a burly, 66-year-old outdoors writer, got a phone call at his home near Cody, Wyoming, from the rock star — and outspoken Second Amendment champion — Ted Nugent. "You messed up, man," Zumbo says Nugent told him. "Big time."
Two days earlier, Zumbo, a leading hunting journalist, outraged Nugent and many other gun owners when he suggested in a blog post that increasingly popular semiautomatic guns known as "black rifles" be banned from hunting. Zumbo, stunned that hunters were using the rifles for sport, also suggested giving the guns, prized for their matte black metal finishes, molded plastic parts and combat-ready looks, a new name: "terrorist rifles."
Gun enthusiasts' backlash against Zumbo was swift. He parted company with his employer, Outdoor Life magazine. Zumbo says on his Web site that he was "terminated"; the magazine says that it and Zumbo agreed that he would resign.
But a week after hearing from Nugent, who has a devoted following among gun owners, Zumbo visited him in Waco, Texas, to make amends. For his part, Nugent was prepared to give Zumbo a lesson on the utility and ubiquity of black rifles.
"These guns are everywhere," Nugent said excitedly in a recent phone interview. "I personally don't know anybody who doesn't have two in his truck."
Despite their menacing appearance — and in some cases, because of it — black rifles are now the guns of choice for many hunters, target shooters and would-be home defenders. Owners praise their accuracy, ease of use and versatility, as well as their potential to be customized with an array of gadgets. While the gun industry's overall sales have plateaued and its profits have faded over the last decade, black rifles are selling briskly, says Eric Wold, an analyst in New York for Merriman Curhan Ford.
Moreover, manufacturers say, for every dollar spent on black rifles, gun buyers spend at least another customizing the guns from an arsenal of accessories. All of this has combined to make black rifles a lone bright spot for long-suffering American gunsmiths.
Yet Zumbo is not alone in finding the popularity of black rifles and the trade in them to be disquieting.
Gun-control advocates say black rifles are simply assault weapons under a different name — and just as dangerous as they were when Congress instituted a ban on some of them in 1994. The ban did not eliminate black rifles; manufacturers were able to make minor changes to comply with the law and kept selling them. (The ban expired in 2004.)
"What you have are guns essentially designed for close combat," says Dennis Hennigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, who notes that a Beretta black rifle was among the weapons obtained by men suspected of plotting a terrorist attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey. "If your mission is to kill a lot of people very quickly, they're very well suited for that task."
But efforts to ban black rifles seem to have only fueled their rise, analysts say. And while some major gun makers were reluctant to defy the spirit of the 1994 ban, dozens of small companies emerged, and their sales surged. (It didn't hurt that many gun owners feared greater restrictions down the road, a fear that manufacturers were more than willing to exploit.)
"Whenever there's a push like this, business increases as people buy a firearm while they can," says Mark Westrom, president of ArmaLite Inc, a maker of black rifles in Geneseo, Illinois. "If you want to sell something to Americans, just tell them they can't have it."