I often joke that I was born with a shotgun in one hand and a rifle in the other. To many people in America, that might seem shocking after the shooting tragedies we’ve witnessed in Uvalde and Buffalo, but it’s not all that far from the truth.
I grew up on a rural western Kansas ranch. We worked hard and on the rare occasions when we had a chance to have fun, it often involved hunting or shooting. Guns came to represent good parts of my culture and times of enjoyment, but my father insisted that safety and responsibility were never absent from the experience. He knew what guns could do because his best friend was murdered by a man with a pistol when he was just 16. He never talked about it much but when he handed us a shotgun for a day of hunting, he did so with an air of serious responsibility.
When I graduated from college, I landed my dream job in the firearms industry and for a while that dream included the same sort of decency and responsibility that my dad insisted upon. But times changed and as my career advanced in the early 2000s, I saw that the cultural connections to guns I grew up with were being twisted by the National Rifle Association into the same fear, conspiracy and hate that is now tearing our country apart. After that realization, I spent nearly 15 years struggling to hold onto my vision of responsible gun ownership while fighting against the NRA from the inside.
Now I am fighting the battle from the outside but I’ve never given up my affinity for guns and I have never given up on my vision about what healthy, responsible gun ownership can and must be.
Now that I have two boys who love to hunt and shoot, I want them to understand the critically important balance between our freedoms and our responsibilities. My boys are good shots, they are comfortable around firearms, but they do not see guns as part of their identity. In fact, my youngest son Badge, who loves to use his shotgun, marched with kids across the nation in the school walkouts after the Parkland shooting in 2018.
I was still working in the industry then and he asked me if it would be OK. “I’m scared dad, I just want my friends to be safe,” he said at our family dinner the night before the walkout was scheduled. I hugged him and told him I was proud.
The next day he stood in front of his Montana grade school, which serves more 450 kids. But Badge was the only person on the sidewalk that day, no other kid in his school went with him. He stood alone on the edge of the street for 17 minutes, one minute for every victim at Parkland. He saw no contradiction in being both a gun owner and a kid who cared about his friends. I hugged Badge again that evening.
My older son Lander, who is now 17, took his first elk with a rifle when he was 13 and loves to shoot handguns. But Lander is also deeply concerned about the other teenagers who use guns as tools to threaten and intimidate. He’s angry that the responsible culture he believes in is being co-opted by the radicals who make up conspiracies centered around firearms legislation. He is frustrated with gun rights supporters who are just fine with looking away from the horrible impacts of gun violence and mass shootings. He has grown accustomed to spotting angry AR-15 logos on trucks and people wearing Black Rifle Coffee ball caps; he mutters under his breath when he sees these things and he worries about normalizing tactical culture because he fears it may end up jeopardizing rights for all Americans.
I don’t remember how all of this started; how my boys came to both love guns and be fearful about what an unhinged devotion to guns is doing to our country. Somehow the basics of gun safety and respect just permeated our time together, just like they did in the times with my dad. Like me, my boys are now conditioned to react in a viscerally negative way when they experience actions contrary to thousands of little lessons they’ve absorbed through the years.
They know what it’s like to stare gun-fueled danger in the eye. In June of 2020, when Badge was just 12, our family attended a Black Lives Matter rally near our home in Montana. We went despite knowing there would be 100 or more armed “second-amendment patriots” there trying to frighten kids like Badge and Lander. When we arrived, the armed men were there, most with loaded AR-15s. Some waved confederate flags and Lander asked me, “what kind of idiots idolize losers?”
Badge joined in with some high school kids, chanting “I can’t breathe” over and over. I turned away, and then looked back to see a middle-aged man with a red cap and armed with a pistol. He was enraged, screaming just inches from Badge’s face, “You are an evil little bastard.”
The whole thing was surreal and frightening and in direct violation of a dozen different gun safety rules my boys knew very well. I jumped in and threatened the man within an inch of his life until he backed away from my son.
Badge was scared to death, he turned to look at the man, shaking with tears in his eyes but he did not stop chanting. In that instant I saw what my industry had created, armed angry men who used guns to scare kids and divide a country.
The situation diffused but it could have been horrific. There was enough firepower around that protest to kill every kid in the crowd. Any spark might have ignited the whole keg. Later as we arrived home from the protest, our family was drained, frightened and tired.
But within a few days, both boys were begging to go target shooting again. They simply refused to allow the unhinged actions of some to sway them from being decent, responsible citizens and gun owners. Still today they see no connection to gun owners who think it’s OK to ignore safety or dismiss school shootings. My boys refuse to give in to those who use guns to divide or give up on their own vision of responsibility.
I know it’s my job as a dad to teach my boys about all of this, but sometimes I can’t help thinking that they are the ones doing the teaching.
Ryan Busse is the author of “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America,” and serves as a senior policy adviser to Giffords, a non-profit organization led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords dedicated to gun safety.