In 2018, Time Magazine collaborated with French-born artist and photographer JR to produce a mural combining photography and digital technology to illustrate the complex social issues surrounding firearms in America. The 245 individuals featured in the mural included hunters, veterans, activists, teachers, doctors, parents and more.1
Stephen Gutowski was also featured in the mural, but what sets him apart from the other 244 people is that he was the only journalist. With pen and notepad in hand, Gutowski is sandwiched at the bottom-right side of the mural, intently focused on taking notes during an interview or press conference despite the sea of chaos engulfing him. JR’s mural embodies Gutowski’s real-life philosophy of sober, serious reporting on firearms in a media landscape rife with belligerence, misinformation, and inaccurate and one-sided commentary. The 35-year-old journalist aims to change that.
From Blogger to Beat Writer
Gutowski attended a small Christian school in Pennsylvania called Messiah College (now Messiah University) to study politics. While a junior there, he started a blog called The College Politico. He had dreams of making a living off of online writing, but it turned out to be more challenging than he imagined. Even though the blog didn’t make him rich, Gutowski’s entrepreneurial spirit and skill as a writer and reporter paid off. He generated job leads and landed a gig at a media watchdog group in Washington, D.C. He spent a couple of years writing about politics before he became a journalist for The Washington Free Beacon, where he began to focus on firearms as a beat. However, it wasn’t a subject with which he had much personal experience.
“I didn’t grow up with firearms,” Gutowski admitted. “A lot of people who know me now might be surprised by that.”
The first time he discharged a firearm was when he went skeet shooting at his boss’ mountain-retreat home. He used a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun to pick off clay pigeons tossed into the air.
“Not the normal way to get started shooting, but that was my first time,” he chuckled. “I really enjoyed it. So, I got more interested in guns from there.”
Gutowski bought his first firearm, an H&R Pardner 20-gauge pump-action shotgun, for around $250 from Dick’s Sporting Goods. In hindsight, he admitted that the heavy Remington 870 knockoff was a terrible choice for skeet shooting. But the experience at his boss’ home and subsequent shotgun purchase were his gateway into the gun world.
“I became more and more interested from there, as a lot of people do with firearms,” Gutowski indicated.
He bought more guns, got more training, obtained his concealed carry license and became an NRA-certified instructor for basic pistol.
“As I became more interested in guns personally, that’s when I was transitioning into this new role as a hard-news reporter,” he explained. “[S]o they kind of came together naturally that way.”
Gutowski found success as one of the only gun-beat reporters in the U.S. He has received numerous accolades for his writing and reporting, has been published by leading news publications, and has appeared on national TV and radio.
After seven years with The Washington Free Beacon, Gutowski decided to give online publishing another shot. In 2021, he launched The Reload, an independent, subscriber-supported publication. But this time around, unlike when he started The College Politico as a student, Gutowski had established himself as an award-winning journalist, won respect for his fair-and-discerning reporting, and gained a large following. Also, subscriber-based publications had become more common in the last decade.
“I had a great run at the Free Beacon,” he stated, “but it just seemed like a good opportunity to recapture that entrepreneurial spirit from my younger years and with a much better business model now.”
What sets The Reload apart from other media sources is that it accurately reports the facts in a balanced and even nuanced way. Gutowski explained that while you have gun-specific publications that are very knowledgeable about firearms and how they operate, they often aren’t familiar with the legislative process or the politics of guns.
“[Y]ou see a lot of focus on fringe bills that have no chance of passing. And people will talk about those bills as though not only are they going to pass, but sometimes they talk about them as though they have already passed, even though there is no chance in real life that they are going to move anywhere,” he declared. “[Y]ou get a lot of sensationalism around politics in gun media, and it’s obviously a problem because it misleads people.”
He also indicated there are major media outlets that have a better understanding of politics but know little to nothing about firearms. The journalists for these publications make cringeworthy remarks and amateur mistakes, such as failing to distinguish between semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles.
Granted, their expertise is not guns, but the information they are putting out that is incorrect or untrue is digested by a significant portion of the population who believes it is. And it’s a journalist’s responsibility to do his or her homework and get the facts straight before publishing a story. The Reload is the best of both worlds. Gutowski and his writers merge their firearms expertise with their understanding of gun politics.
Gutowski isn’t bashful about engaging with the other side either. He speaks to experts and advocates from all corners of the gun debate, something you rarely see.
“[I]t’s important when you are writing about any topic, guns in particular in this case, to at least make an effort to understand what each side is actually arguing and what they believe and the reasons they believe those things,” Gutowski explained. “Your job as a journalist is to explain what’s going on to your audience, and you can’t do that well if you don’t have a grasp of it yourself.”
But major media coverage of gun stories generally leaves audiences in the dark about what is really going on. It’s often because reporters fail to explore the opposition’s views and don’t have an understanding of why they’re disagreeing with something. Consequently, readers only get a fraction of the story.
For instance, Gutowski said one publication might tell its readers that a certain policy polls well and so there’s no reason to oppose it. Another might say a certain type of gun is used to kill innocent people and so there’s no legitimate reason a person should want to own one.
As a result of this one-sided reporting, readers don’t have a basic understanding of why somebody disagrees with them or holds a certain belief. While they don’t have to agree with the opposing side’s views, it’s beneficial to at least comprehend why these people think the way they do. And being well-informed permits a person to efficiently engage from a position of knowledge instead of ignorance.
Gutowski said another flaw with many news sources is that the statistics they cite are not what they seem. For example, polling numbers, especially after a mass murder, claim the American public overwhelmingly supports “universal background checks” and “assault weapons” bans. While these controversial topics may perform well in certain polls, they aren’t as popular and do not have as much support as the media depicts.
“The problem with that thinking is that they don’t perform anywhere near as well when actually put up to a vote in ballot initiatives,” Gutowski stated. “And even further, certainly it doesn’t appear opposing something like an ‘assault weapons’ ban is costing people their elected positions. So, there’s obviously something more to the situation than just ‘look at this one poll that we do that proves that thing is demanded by the American public.’ Because if it were, presumably the people who are opposed to it would not continue to get reelected. Or it would pass.”
In addition, many gun studies cited by the media aren’t well-vetted. Gutowski stated that some of these studies don’t even meet the basic criteria used by leading research organizations.
News sources on both sides of the gun debate routinely cherry-pick whatever studies or stats support their arguments without investigating where the information came from or how accurate it is. (This is a major problem among politicians on Capitol Hill too.)
“The media is just generally bad at covering all kinds of studies,” Gutowski admitted. “There’s almost never any distinction made between a really rigorous study and a really poorly done study in media coverage. It’s just whatever the top line is gets the headline. And there’s not usually much more thought put into it beyond that.”
Gutowski finds these flaws in media coverage of guns and politics troubling. He intends to avoid the same pitfalls with The Reload and to provide readers with a news source they can trust.
“There’s a lot of room for a publication that is serious about both the politics and the guns that has an expert-level knowledge of both that can accurately explain what’s going on in the world of guns to people and in a way that is sober and reliable,” Gutowski declared. “That’s what I’m trying to do with The Reload … to bring a different perspective to the coverage of guns, one that’s rounded and factual.”
The Hurdles and Thrills
When asked what his most challenging topic to cover has been since starting The Reload, Gutowski said President Biden’s ATF nominees. Getting tight-lipped federal law enforcement agents to talk about what goes on inside their agency is almost unheard of. Not many media outlets have had much success finding ATF sources willing to discuss the backgrounds of the different nominees.
“Trying to track down different stories about David Chipman or Steve Dettelbach, the two Biden nominees, has been very challenging and something that only really The Reload has been able to accomplish as far as getting ATF agent sources to speak about those guys, or to talk about the demotion of the acting director, Marvin Richardson, and how upset a lot of agents inside the ATF were about that — still are,” Gutowski stated. “It’s been challenging but rewarding, because obviously we have been able to accomplish the goal of finding those sources and getting to the truth of the story of what’s going on inside the ATF.”
One of the storylines Gutowski has been following that’s especially exciting for him is the changing face of gun ownership in America. More women, minorities and younger people are becoming gun owners at record levels. He’s interested in the way that has impacted everything in the gun industry and in gun politics. Besides speaking with gun groups, such as the D.C. Project, the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA) and Asian American Pacific Islander Gun Owners (APAGOA), he’s interviewed individuals such as Mia Farinelli, the 15-yearold competitive shooter. He wants The Reload’s readers (and the American public) to understand that gun owners are a diverse group of Americans.
More women, minorities and younger people are becoming gun owners at record levels. He’s interested in the way that has impacted everything in the gun industry and in gun politics.
“Being able to share the stories of some of these new gun owners and spend time with them and get a better understanding of their point of view has been really great,” he said. “It’s something I look forward to doing more of.” One of the biggest gun stories of the year is the Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. Gutowski indicated the decision is going to create a cascade of change in guns laws across the country, and The Reload is focusing a lot of its resources to monitor these events.
“It’s a long-term story,” he stated. “It’s one of the major stories in American gun politics — how this ruling will actually trickle down to the lower courts to gun-control laws across the country. Obviously, first it starts with gun-carry laws, which still are just seeing the early impact of Bruen on the specific laws it was targeting, these may-issue gun carry laws.”
Some states, such as New York, New Jersey and California, have responded to the ruling by passing laws that are even more restrictive.
“How all that will actually stand out in court will be a big question,” Gutowski declared. “Whether the Supreme Court follows up this ruling with further action to ensure that its decision is being honored by the lower courts is going to be a really big deal because they really didn’t do that after Heller for 14 years.”
Slowly and Sustainably
It’s no small feat running a publication, and it comes with many challenges. Right now, Gutowski has freelancers and an intern working for him, but he’s the only full-time employee. He hopes to bring in new revenue streams so he can hire some staff as The Reload grows. But growth can be a slow and painful process. Every seasoned business owner knows that persistence, patience and fortitude are essential traits to possess in order to succeed.
“[I]f you work for yourself, you’re basically just working all the time. There are no real days off. So that’s one of the big challenges of it,” stated Gutowski. “You got to keep moving all the time and running the site in addition to writing for it. [It] takes a lot of work. But it’s worth it.”
He also admitted that you can be your own worst critic when things don’t go how you expect them to or progress as quickly as you would like.
“[Y]ou’re always hard on yourself, I think, as a business owner, when something is not perfect, or you can’t do everything you want to do with the resources you have,” Gutowski explained. “[W]e can do a lot more if we have more revenue and I had more employees, but the reality is when you run a small business like this — that’s not the new Silicon Valley unicorn-type-business, where someone’s not just going to throw 100 million dollars at you — you have to build slowly and sustainably. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
Most of the content on The Reload is free to readers in order to fulfill Gutowski’s mission to better inform the public about firearms, how they work, who owns them and why. But it costs money to run a publication, so he relies on paid members to support it.
“We’ve grown a lot this last year, this first year of operation, and as long as we can continue to do that, I’m hoping we’ll have a publication that lasts the test of time,” Gutowski remarked. “That’s my goal: to really build something that’s unique and that lasts.”
(1) Edward Felsenthal, “Why TIME Devoted an Issue to Guns in America,” TIME.com, Oct. 25, 2018, Time.com/longform/why-time-made-guns-in-america/
The Reload: TheReload.com