In 1995, when Ryan Busse began working for a tiny gun company called Kimber America, he believed that the gun industry and the NRA embodied wholesome values. “Those were still the days of magazine covers featuring the warmth of father-son hunting trips,” he writes in his new book, “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America.”
He gradually saw the gun industry abandon its traditional norms of safety, instead spreading fear and conspiracy theories to sell military-style assault weapons designed to kill many people quickly.
Busse, who moved to Montana in 1996 to become Kimber’s vice president of sales, believed Kimber’s guns were for self-defense, hunting and target shooting. From the mid-1990s until his resignation in 2020, he helped develop the company and often met with gun lobby leaders.
But during this time, he gradually saw the gun industry abandon its traditional norms of safety, instead spreading fear and conspiracy theories to sell military-style assault weapons designed to kill many people quickly. Busse’s book is the story of a man who refused to change his values as the NRA and much of his industry, blinded by profits, became a dangerous extremist force.
While working in the industry, Busse admits, he did things he regrets. In 2000, for example, he helped the gun industry boycott gunmaker Smith & Wesson when its CEO Ed Shultz agreed with the Clinton administration to put trigger locks on all of its guns, develop guns that only authorized users could fire and take steps to prevent the company’s dealers from selling guns illegally.
These common-sense steps enraged the gun lobby. Busse and other gun executives told their dealers to stop selling Smith & Wesson guns. The company’s sales plummeted, and Shultz was forced to resign. These events are recounted in a 2012 report by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence titled “Smoking Guns: Exposing the Gun Industry’s Complicity in the Illegal Gun Market.”
After 9/11 and Bush’s war on Iraq, the gun industry increased its emphasis on selling military-style assault weapons. The NRA’s leader Wayne LaPierre and others spread fear of minorities and anti-government conspiracy theories to sell more of them.
In 2007, in his column on the Outdoor Life magazine website, Jim Zumbo, wrote that assault rifles have no place in hunting. For that he was roundly criticized and quickly fired, even though he immediately apologized. Until then, says Busse, “reasonable, experienced, and morally conscious people” had moderated the industry. No longer. The new profits were too great.
The conflict between Busse’s values and his job as a gun exec grew more intense. He came to question Republicans who proclaimed support for hunting while pursuing policies that were toxic to the environment. The Trump administration, he writes, “wrecked multistate bipartisan wildlife-conservation projects” and “rolled back clean-water protections that had benefited wildlife across the nation.”
Finally, in August 2020, Busse resigned from Kimber and became an environmental activist. In a speech at the Montana State Capitol, he warned that the gun industry “had built and fueled the same politics that eventually threatened” the wild place where he hunted — an area so beautiful it felt sacred to him.
In his book, Busse makes a strong case that Trump’s surprising political success happened largely because he adopted the NRA’s messaging and tactics. He writes: “The self-absorbed real estate tycoon embraced the same hatred of the media, the same criticism of the cultural elites, the same overriding belief that only power mattered and the same innate sense that promulgating fear was the most efficient way to reinforce all of it.”
Today Busse advises progressive organizations “with the aim of undoing the country’s dangerous radicalization.” Better than selling guns in an industry much of which has no principles except to make money.
This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.