FEATURED OUTLAW Ryan Busse in Montana with his lead dog Brittany and carrying his favorite shotgun, a 1912 AH Fox that he restored. PHOTO BY ADAM PECHT

BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR

When Ryan Busse talks about guns, people listen. That’s in part because of the statistics he rattles off. In January, Busse delivered a powerful talk at a TEDx event in Big Sky, Montana. Twenty-five years ago, he told the audience, Americans purchased 350,000 guns each month. Today, that number is nearing 2.5 million. Each month. The reason, he says, comes down to fear. Busse wrote about guns, fear and a divided America in his groundbreaking 2021 book, Gunfight.

Busse is definitely not afraid of guns. He owns dozens of them, hunts regularly, and in fact worked in the gun industry for 30 years. He’s afraid that firearms are finding themselves in the hands of some Americans who are unfit to own them.

Two main types of people are of particular concern to him: individuals killing innocent citizens in an increasing amount of mass shootings across the country: the Lanzas, the Harrises and Klebolds, the Roofs; and radicalized far-right extremist groups aiming to overthrow our democracy: the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters.

Ryan Busse, then a vice president of Kimber firearms, speaks at the Rally for Public Lands in the Montana state Capitol in 2019. PHOTO BY THOM BRIDGE/INDEPENDENT RECORD

I appreciate the right to own guns. My parents gave me guns as gifts. I believe that I have the right to defend myself with a gun. But those times were always balanced with responsibility.

America’s fate, Busse says, is at the heart of his book. He writes about Kyle Rittenhouse who, at 17 years old in 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot and killed two men, wounding another with an AR-15-style rifle. Rittenhouse was acquitted last year on the basis of self-defense.

“The moral question is different than the legal question,” Busse told Mountain Outlaw a day before taking the TEDxBigSky stage. “You don’t borrow an AR-15 and go into the heat of a battle if you don’t have some sort of dream of deploying it. Do we want to live in a country, legal or not, where those sorts of norms are broken? We, as citizens in a society, establish the norms and I fear the speed [with which] those are breaking apart.”

Busse sat down with Mountain Outlaw to discuss his book Gunfight, his respect for firearms, freedom versus responsibility, and how the gun industry and the National Rifle Association are tearing America at the seams. The following is our conversation, edited for brevity. Visit mtoutlaw.com to watch the full interview.

Hundreds of protesters gathered on June 6, 2020 in Kalispell’s Depot Park for a BLM rally to denounce police violence against people of color. Nationwide protests were sparked after George Floyd’s death in May 2020. PHOTO BY HUNTER D’ANTUANO

I think we have lost this connection with decency and responsibility because there’s so much hate now and distrust in our political system and in our society

Mountain Outlaw

Ryan, thanks for joining me. Talk about the inception of Gunfight.

Ryan Busse

I grew up on a ranch with guns as an important part of my life. I then got what I thought was a dream job in the firearms industry, kind of like a kid playing baseball. It’s like I made the Major Leagues. The book is really my memoir and my family’s memoir, narrow lens, and a broader lens on the change in our nation and the change in the industry.

M.O.:

There are a lot of different ways to get your messaging out there. When did you first think, “I’ve got to write a book about this?”

R.B.:

I thought about a book a long time ago. But really, I’d say after the Trump inauguration in 2017. I was at the industry trade show and the industry basically shut down the entire trade show to kind of worship the Trump inauguration that day. One of the largest trade shows in the world, they piped the audio in and it was on flat-screen TVs everywhere. It was kind of like a Catholic mass and it shook me to my core and frightened me and I thought, “I need to document this and I think a book is the best way.”

M.O.:

Going back to that day, the inauguration of former President Trump, did you see that as being the connection between politics and the gun industry?

R.B.:

No, the connection had been happening for a long time and had certainly accelerated during the eight years of the Obama administration. The NRA had always claimed and still does claim to be a nonpartisan organization or bipartisan. In reality it hasn’t been for a long time, and everything that we did in the industry since 2000 at least has always been overtly political.

The Trump thing for me represented a dangerous combination of where it was going. It just kept getting worse and it was more overt. I never thought I would be at a business trade show for a trade group where one political candidate was celebrated.

M.O.:

You grew up in Kansas and you were in the gun industry for 25 years. Talk about your relationship with guns.

R.B.:

Many of the best parts of my life have been spent with guns, around guns, with my father, with my brother, with my boys, with my wife hunting, shooting.      I appreciate the right to own guns. My parents gave me guns as gifts. I believe that I have the right to defend myself with a gun. But those times were always balanced with responsibility. I believe that a right, a freedom that important, deserves a commensurate responsibility. As my dad would say, “These things can take a life in an instant.” And in the end, that’s what a gun is built to do. I think our responsibility-to-freedom scale is badly out of whack.

M.O.:

It’s leading to a lot of division in the country. I’ve heard you use the word responsibility quite a bit, along with decency. Talk about that relationship.

R.B.:

I start my book with my young son Badge being attacked at a Black Lives Matter rally [in Kalispell] where there were at least 100 armed people with AR-15s and handguns and tactical gear in a crowd of maybe 1,000 or 1,500 people, most of them high school kids. Badge was a junior high kid at that point. There were all these armed guys there and I thought, “What are you guys going to do, shoot high school kids?” There’s nothing decent about that. There’s nothing responsible about it. That violates every gun safety rule I’ve ever heard of.

I think we have lost this connection with decency and responsibility because there’s so much hate now and distrust in our political system and in our society that we’re looking for ways to celebrate indecent activities like killing other citizens.

M.O.:

You’ve said you don’t have anything against AR-15s. Do you own an AR-15?

R.B.:

I don’t. Never have. They just don’t really appeal to me. The sort of hunting and shooting I do, I don’t need that as a tool. In fact, it’s a very ineffective tool for the stuff that I like to do. I’m very worried that it has become more than a tool. Now it’s a very divisive political symbol. And I really don’t want to play a part in that sort of divisiveness.

LEFT: Busse and his son Badge at the June 2020 Kalispell BLM rally. A few minutes after this picture was taken, the opening scene in Gunfight occurred. (An armed counterprotester attacked Badge as described in the book.) PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN BUSSE RIGHT: Busse published Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America in October of 2021. The New York Times described the book as “part memoir, part treatise on gun policy in America.” OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

It’s not anti-gun or irresponsible to talk about norms, and decency and responsibility. We accept regulation on guns in our lives every day.

M.O.:

Some make a political argument that pits Democrats against Republicans or vice versa, in that a Democratic political candidate might take away your guns. Is that a legitimate argument?

R.B.:

I don’t think so, no. And that question gets at one thing I believe:      it’s not anti-gun or irresponsible to talk about norms, and decency and responsibility. We accept regulation on guns in our lives every day. For instance, if you want to go buy a howitzer today, you’re going to find it very difficult because it’s illegal. We don’t say that’s some crazy communist, socialist thing. It’s just an accepted regulation. It’s not anti-gun to have those regulations. It’s pro-responsibility.

M.O.:

Over the past 10, 20 years, we’ve seen an increase in mass shootings. We’ve also now seen—and you can especially look at January 6—the rise of certain extremist groups of gun owners. Are those mutually exclusive?

R.B.:

I don’t think we should say that now these radicalized groups are just like Adam Lanza or Nicholas Cruz. Those are troubled, usually young white kids or young men who are doing very deranged, horrible things. That’s different than these very organized, concerted, angry, radicalized groups: the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, lots of militia groups, many of which we saw manifest on January 6. I didn’t see any Chevy trucks on flags. There were two types of flags: Trump American political flags and “Come-and-take-it” AR-15 flags. Guns are at the very center of that.

Where they are the same is I think they’re byproducts of focusing only on this unfettered right or unfettered freedom, both to own guns and to make money from them. I saw an ever-radicalized marketing effort in the firearms industry. If we pump gasoline and open flame into a system, are we really surprised that we have these explosions? Some of them are big, controlled, slow-burning and probably growing explosions like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, and then some of them are ugly little flash fires—Sandy Hook, Parkland—they’re individual but there’s flame and gas going into the system.

M.O.:

We talked quite a bit about the media. Now you’re going on this book tour, you’re dealing with media and you’re also referencing these large, glossy advertisements for specific guns. What role does media play in all of this?

R.B.:

I think social media, controlled partisan media, that’s part of the fuel that’s going into this system and guns are part of it, too. There are now tactical [gear] influencers with 2 million followers on YouTube. And they talk about the only way to be an awesome American male is to wrap yourself in a flag and have AR-15s and talk about how you want to own the libs. Very dangerous.

M.O.:

Echo chambers.

R.B.:

Yeah.

M.O.:

You discuss the NRA: it was certainly a big part of your career, a big part of your book. How powerful is the NRA?

R.B.:

I listen to NPR in the mornings. I’m probably the only firearms executive that can lay claim to that. And I’ve heard many times on NPR this idea that the NRA is the tool of the firearms industry. I found that to be 100 percent wrong. It’s exactly opposite. The NRA ran the industry unofficially; everything it did set the pace for the gun industry. Nobody I ever met in the industry spoke ill of the NRA, ran afoul of them, ever did anything that the NRA didn’t tacitly approve. It was such an incredibly effective and aligned messaging machine. NRA-ism is not going anywhere, even if the NRA as an organization is somewhat weakened.

M.O.:

You write about racism in relation to the NRA and the culture war. Talk a little about that.

R.B.:

Most of the industry pushback [about Gunfight] was quiet and I think very purposely trying not to give the book any oxygen. But the most vocal pushback I got was over my claims of racism in the industry. I want to be really clear about what I mean. It’s not like I saw KKK hoods marching up and down tradeshow aisles. What I saw is that anything that could drive angst and fear and division would either be overtly used or overtly forgotten or excused.

People in the industry, I’m quite sure, believe themselves not to be racist and probably aren’t racist. Yet, the NRA tolerated, I believe even sometimes encouraged, very racist things. That really accelerated in and around the election of President Obama. Fast forward to the Trump administration where Trump would claim he’s not racist. But then so many racist elements were used or winked at. Again, it’s another component of what was first developed by the NRA as a way to drive social angst or a way to look away from it or just quietly fuel it. The NRA did it and then Trump did it. The parallels are just too uncanny.

Armed men stand near the Flathead County Veterans Memorial as hundreds of protesters gathered in Kalispell for the BLM rally to denounce police violence against people of color on June 6, 2020. PHOTO BY HUNTER D’ANTUANO/FLATHEAD BEACON

It has to start individually with us starting to insist upon responsibility again. I don’t think politics is going to fix culture. I think culture has to fix the politics.

M.O.:

So, let’s go back to responsibility. What does that look like in your mind for politicians, for the NRA, for the gun industry?

R.B.:

I start with the freedom and responsibility balance. I don’t think responsibility looks like eliminating freedoms. I think it looks like tempering freedoms. We value a freedom to drive from one place to the other. But we don’t value it so much that we think it’s OK to go 90 mph in a school zone. Our freedom is limited: you may be late to work, you may want to speed, but you don’t do it. The same thing needs to apply to guns. There’s almost nothing I can imagine that’s more important to be responsible with than a gun.

M.O.:

We were talking earlier about some of the response to your book. What pushback have you received?

R.B.:

When it was published on October 19, I thought, “Here we go.” And something very odd happened: the exact opposite response that I anticipated. [The correspondence was] largely from centrist—some center-right, some center-left—people who identify with the book and love it. And certainly, there are progressive people who like it too and I get kind messages from them and almost all of it’s positive. It’s a very rare day that I get a negative one and most of those are just thoughtless, trolling: “You hate guns and you’re a commie and you’re an asshole and hope you fall off the earth and die.” Our social media world has encouraged those kinds of comments. The stuff I’m getting though, the positive stuff, is heartfelt.

M.O.:

You’ve heard from some NRA members. Have you heard from the industry or the lobby itself?

R.B.:

No response. And I think that’s quite purposeful. Again, there’s really nothing to debate in the book. It’s just my life and my history and what happened to me, so I’m happy to chat with any of them.

M.O.:

In the book, you talk about a scale of how many guns are sold in the U.S.

R.B.:

I think it’s important for readers to understand that what’s going on in the United States, the amount of guns being sold directly corresponds to the amount of hate and vitriol and political division in your life. If you think back to the most tumultuous cultural time that you and I have ever lived through, that was probably that COVID March of 2020 to election time. BLM rallies, riots in big cities, people being shot, people intimidating my son at protests. COVID lockdowns, election fraud. Holy smokes did we live through a lot.

Well, what 11 months do you think the highest gun sales in the history of the country are? Those 11 months. Why is it that the same thing that drives the most hate-filled, tumultuous, divisive time in our cultural and political life also drives gun sales? That’s where we are. There’s this weird, dangerous symbiosis between those two.

M.O.:

Is it fear?

R.B.:

It’s all based on fear. And nobody that I’ve ever seen is better at stirring up irrational fear than the NRA. When I started in the industry, an average of about 350,000 guns a month were sold in United States. And that sounds like a lot. During that political tumult that we just described, between 2 [million] and 2.5 million guns a month were sold in the United States. And if you need me to do the math for you, that’s a 614 percent increase. If you need me to do the math on the hate and division, and vitriol in our lives, I think it’s an infinite percentage increase. Do I think the fact that both of those graphs [lie] right on top of each other as a coincidence? No, I don’t.

M.O.:

Continue that graph. What does that look like?

R.B.:

That graph in and of itself is pretty frightening. To me, the exceptionally frightening part is where the graph is headed. What do the next two to five years look like? It’s a steady line. In both cases, anybody that looks at graphs would say this is going further up and it’s going further up fast. That should frighten the hell out of us. What does that look like? More guns, more hate, more division, more conspiracy theories. We either do something about it or that’s where the graph is going.

M.O.:

What do we do?

R.B.:

First, we understand where it started. And then … we start leaning on our friends and family. It has to start individually with us starting to insist upon responsibility again. I don’t think politics is going to fix culture. I think culture has to fix the politics. Let’s be a leader on this. Somebody needs to stand up in the room and say it’s OK to do it. That’s what I hope the book does.

M.O.:

That it brings some level of accountability to the situation.

R.B.:

Yeah. And reframes the argument, right? Again, it’s not taking people’s freedoms. No, this is responsibility. This is what has to happen in a society or we’re going to have dead kids in the school zone. We don’t want that. You ask about this proliferation of guns. You’re scared, I’m scared, everybody’s scared. We all buy guns; we all are Kyle Rittenhouse. We all go down to the rally. We’re all on different sides and we all shoot each other. It might all be legal, but it doesn’t sound like the society I want to live in. We as individuals have to start reinserting responsibility in our everyday lives.

CALL TO ACTION

Busse says responsibility and commonsense laws should be implemented, including increased background checks and red flag laws allowing law enforcement officials to remove guns from those posing a threat to themselves or others.

M.O.:

What do you recommend for how to unite Americans around a common cause on guns, and move beyond the rhetorical weaponization that has made it a political polemic?

R.B.:

First, we need to demand a return to basic norms of responsibility. That means decent people must pressure those who are irresponsible.

Second, we must embrace responsibility as a necessary counterbalance to our rights. This means commonsense regulations like background checks or red flag laws should be no-brainers because responsible gun owners want to keep the bad guys from getting guns.

M.O.

Is there a political fix?

R.B.:

There should be a political fix for some of these things, yes. But politics follows culture and that means responsible gun owners will need to demand legislation and return to norms before the politics kick in.

Cover image for the Summer 2022 Issue of Mountain Outlaw