Once or twice a year, staffers at the Washington Free Beacon can take a firearms safety course that qualifies them to apply for a concealed carry permit. The class, “Basic Pistol,” is taught by Stephen Gutowski, an NRA-certified firearms instructor whose day job is covering firearms and the gun rights movement at the Free Beacon, which is based in Rosslyn.
Gutowski, 32, is from Pennsylvania and was spending the day at his mother’s horse farm when I reached him by phone. Though he’s from an area where lots of kids take the first day of hunting season off from school, Gutowski didn’t grow up using guns: He says he got into them during his first job after college, at what the Media Research Center calls one of its “fun days” for staffers in 2009. He was 22 and shot skeet at MRC founder Brent Bozell’s cabin in Virginia; he got hooked.
Starting in 2014, Gutowski channeled his hobby into a full-time beat at the Free Beacon, which required him to learn ever more about the NRA, “by and large the most important organization when it comes to firearms,” Gutowski says. His connections to the organization are many—not only has he covered it closely (last year, he went strapped to its annual meeting) and appeared on its NRATV service, he’s also an on-and-off member who is currently on—”because you need a membership to attend the board meeting,” he explains. “I don’t think it creates any real conflict of interest but I do my best to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest whenever possible,” he writes in a follow-up email. “If an NRA membership helps me better report a story, as it did in this case, then I think it’s justifiable to have one.”
These are not normal times for the NRA, which has experienced a litany of setbacks lately, many of them self-induced. Not only was it outspent by gun-control advocates in the 2018 elections, it’s been drawn into a federal investigation of Russian attempts to influence politics. A protracted leadership struggle followed a New Yorker report about self-dealing at the top of the NRA’s org chart, and reports of exorbitant spending have followed. On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the group’s struggles have “devolved into civil war.” That article, by Danny Hakim, credits “a reporter for the Washington Free Beacon” for pushing leaked internal NRA documents into the public sphere. That reporter is Gutowski. Reached by e-mail, Gutowski’s boss, Matthew Continetti, says, “Stephen is a great journalist and an essential part of the Beacon. I’m happy to see his work get the attention it deserves.”
“A lot of people inside the NRA, honestly, get their news from me,” Gutowski says. During the NRA’s most recent annual meeting, for example, he reported that one of his sources saw the organization’s now-former president, Oliver North, head to the airport early. He’s leveraged his close coverage of boardmembers like former Congressman Allen B. West and Timothy Knight to keep news items coming (it doesn’t hurt that the NRA has 76 people on its board, which provides many opportunities to break news). The documents Hakim refers to, he says, were sent by a source; he tweeted about them but didn’t write about them at the Free Beacon until he’d confirmed they were legit. He credits Daily Beast reporter Betsy Woodruff and Wall Street Journal reporter Mark Maremont for confirming them before he was able to: It can be helpful, he says, to have other journalists competing on a story.
In addition to his typed reporting, Gutowski hosts a video series about guns and gun culture and also is happy to help other journalists understand the intricacies of firearms reporting—a blind spot for many reporters. He’ll send anyone who’s curious a slideshow that explains, for instance, the difference between semiautomatic and automatic weapons, as well as an explainer of how gun laws inform carry permits, and he’s working on a plan to teach a firearms literacy class for journalists.
The story of the NRA, now, Gutowski says, extends beyond the turmoil in its C-suite to whether it can continue as an effective advocate for its members. The group’s revenue from dues was down in 2017, the last year for which public information is available, he says. “Will they be able to rebound to have a major impact in 2020? That’s an open question.”