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'Gunfight' Is One Of The Most Important Books You May Ever Read About Guns In America
December 22, 2021
'Gunfight' Is One Of The Most Important Books You May Ever Read About Guns In America
Ryan Busse, a Montana hunter, was once a gun industry executive who helped create the uncivil war over firearms in America. Now he's trying to change the discourse before it's too late
Author Ryan Busse hunting upland birds somewhere in Montana. Busse is an ardent defender of the Second Amendment and its provisions protecting the right of ownership for hunting, competitive shooting and personal protection of life and property. However, he says the shrill, aggressive rhetoric is giving hunting a bad name and turning people away from hunting, at a time when there is also declining numbers of hunters nationally. Photo courtesy Ryan Busse
by Tom Sadler and Todd Wilkinson
In “The Week That Is,” journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson joins MoJo’s national Washington DC correspondent Tom Sadler in discussions of topical events relating to the nation’s capital city and/or the public land West. This week we feature a discussion with Ryan Busse of Montana, author of a new book about guns that is making waves from coast to coast. (For the record, both Wilkinson and Sadler grew up around guns and are lifelong hunters and anglers).
Few topics are more “triggering” today in America, especially within red states, than discussions about guns. Perhaps no one, at this moment, understands this better than Busse, a self-described former “gunrunner” who has called out the firearm industry and the powerful National Rifle Association in his new book.
Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America is an insider’s account. Already called one of the most important books about guns in America ever written, it has placed Busse on a metaphorical firing line and is stirring up conversation nationally. No matter where one comes down on right to bear arms issues, Gunfight ought to be a part of your reading list.
Four things justify Mountain Journal’s recommendation of the book. First, Busse enters the fray as a gun advocate, hunter, and Westerner. Second, he’s smart, self-reflective, draws upon first-hand experience and doesn’t deny having complicity in creating a problem that is tearing the country apart. Third, as a father, he really is trying to secure a better America for his family and he doesn’t see that happening with a needless civil war driven by rhetoric or violence. Fourth, Busse is also, in a way, a fighter for free speech and sees the way the gun industry carefully controls the public conversation about the Second Amendment is an infringement upon the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The irony of Gunfight is that Busse himself, as a gun industry executive and strategist, helped frame up the arguments used as a litmus test by the gun industry to get politicians elected or defeated. None of the current problems in America are going to be remedied , and no one is going to have more freedom, liberty, and safety if it means having to stare up the barrel of someone else’s gun.
Fear sells, Busse notes in Gunfight. And in recent years, unsubstantiated claims that liberals are coming for hunters' deer rifles and shotguns have also fueled paranoia as well as cleverly-choreographed propaganda campaigns that have manipulated the gullible masses into believing they're true. Even though it’s a canard, Busse says, the truth doesn’t seem to matter. When objective reality becomes a casualty to an industry that uses power, influence and money as tools for evading accountability, the nation, he notes, is in trouble.
Busse did not write Gunfight to be a polemic. For him, a looming, frightening question is what's the end game of the escalating rhetoric and the inability of America to have a rational conversation about guns within the context of maintaining law, order and a functional democracy? MoJo's Wilkinson and Sadler had the following conversation with Busse.
Todd Wilkinson: Before we leap into the fire, I want to know: why do you live in Montana, in the northern Rockies? How did you get here?
RYAN BUSSE: As a kid on a high plains ranch, I learned about Montana from my dad in stories he told me as a young boy. When he was in college as a very young man he took a trip with his brother and couple buddies to Montana. I heard the resulting stories often. He slept in hayfields near famous rivers and told me about hearing big trout feed during the night. He described the valleys and mountains in ways that would have made Norman Maclean proud. So in 1995, when I was a young man of 25, I jumped at the opportunity to move to Montana. I did it on a whim after a tiny rifle manufacturer (Kimber) was convinced that a couple guys could run a sales and marketing office from northwest Montana. It was all a romantic dream for me and it remains one today.
Tom Sadler: Let’s jump into the book. To me it's not a tell-all, it's a mea culpa. In your Author’s Note, you write, “This book is true, even the parts I wish were not.” Talk a little about what that means, the sentiment behind the statement.
BUSSE: There are things that I wish were different. While I did not know it at the time, I helped play a role in developing a political reality I now wish was much different. It is a hard thing to know that something you once held as important, almost sacred, has instead been used and twisted into a force that is at odds with most of what you hold dear. In that way, my story is not unlike the story of our country.
Wilkinson: You have encountered some people who, in a knee-jerk way, claim you are undermining the Second Amendment of the Constitution which pertains to the right to bear arms. Tell us, in simple terms, where do you stand?
BUSSE: As I describe in the book, many of the best parts of my life have involved guns. That remains true now as I hunt and shoot with my boys. I believe in the right to self defense and the rights of Americans to own guns. I also believe that a right of this elevated importance must involve a very large degree of responsibility. That either happens voluntarily, or through government regulation. I refuse to believe that reason and responsibility are in any way “anti-gun.” Quite the contrary, I believe that being pro gun mandates that we must embrace responsibility for the good of a functioning society.
"Many of the best parts of my life have involved guns. That remains true now as I hunt and shoot with my boys. I believe in the right to self defense and the rights of Americans to own guns. I refuse to believe that reason and responsibility are in any way 'anti-gun.'" —Former gun industry executive Ryan Busse
Sadler: In Chapter One you write, “My industry has played a leading role in fomenting the division of our nation.” That’s a heavy statement placing a lot of the onus on the firearms industry. Do you think there is any hope that the gun industry will act responsibly and help heal the divide?
BUSSE: I am dubious, given that at present, it is a gun industry firing offense to make a public statement contrary to the stated positions of the NRA or the Republican Party, no matter how extreme those positions become. There is literally no dissent allowed. Even if that means embracing “the big lie,” violent insurrection or political figures like Sen. Mike Lee (R- UT) who aggressively calls for the end to public lands in America. As long as there is an enforced totalitarian groupthink like this, the industry will not be a constructive player. That does not mean that reasonable gun owners cannot fill that role and create change from the outside in. That I think is possible!
Wilkinson: Within outdoor journalism, there’s an expression called “getting Zumboed” that applies to writers who have questioned the promotion/use of certain kinds of guns in hunting and suffered severe blowback from the NRA and gun manufacturers. In the case of writer Jim Zumbo of Cody, a popular contributor at Outdoor Life, he was fired from his job and it created a chilling effect on writers and outdoor columnists. Can you comment on this phenomenon?
BUSSE: Yes, in 2007 Jim Zumbo expressed what was at the time, a commonly held antipathy towards the overt embrace of “assault style guns.” Jim dared to call them “Terrorist Rifles” on his blog after a day of hunting. Despite his revered status (he had authored 23 books and was a celebrity who regularly signed autographs at trades shows), his multiple sponsorships, editor status at Outdoor Life and his celebrity status were almost instantly revoked. That was a big turning point in the industry. A few years later, Dick Metcalf who spent 37 years as a respected editor at the largest gun magazines, dared to suggest that not all gun laws were “infringements” and he too was summarily fired almost immediately. Because of public executions like this, everyone else in the industry got the message; “Never criticize anything no matter how extreme or dangerous.” What developed from those events was a culture where ever worsening extremism could only be embraced. If that sounds a lot like modern politics on the right, well it is. The world of gun politics is where it all started.
In 2007, Jim Zumbo, a popular hunting columnist based in Cody, Wyoming, expressed what was at the time, a commonly held antipathy towards the overt embrace of “assault style guns.” Jim dared to call them “Terrorist Rifles” on his blog after a day of hunting. Despite his revered status (he had authored 23 books and was a celebrity who regularly signed autographs at trades shows), his multiple sponsorships, editor status at Outdoor Life and his celebrity status were almost instantly revoked. —Ryan Busse
Wilkinson: Tom and Ryan, if you don’t mind, I want to stay on this topic for just a bit. One of the first books I wrote was about whistleblowers and among the most effective techniques used against them is shooting the messenger. Have you experienced that?
BUSSE: Yes, but mostly when I was still in the industry because the most effective tool is to threaten a person’s livelihood and social structure. It was painful for me, but I gave all of that up before I wrote this book so now the typical “lets get him fired” tactics don’t work on me. Knowing that there are many former friends who now disown me is tough but I also knew that is the way it would go. As we discussed with Zumbo and Metcalf, (and others) there have been plenty of messengers who were shot, and it is an incredibly effective tactic. That is why no one in the industry even dares to think about criticizing people like the insurrectionists or Kyle Rittenhouse.
Wilkinson: Is it not ironic that a segment of America decries the so-called “cancel culture” and yet there is an organized public relations machinery ready to silence anyone who exercises the First Amendment in talking about the Second Amendment?
BUSSE: Yes, I have experienced that the right is incredibly effective at canceling dissent and there are numerous examples in my book. I believe I lived through the formation of this tool and regrettably, I now believe I even contributed to it.
Wilkinson: So, why is there so little tolerance for having honest discussions about guns. When did the era of severe muzzling start, and what has been the impact on how we in the hunting community talk, or don’t talk about, guns and the tradition of going afield?
BUSSE: This is exactly the thing that now controls the right side of our politics and it began in the gun industry between 2004 and 2007. There was a conflagration of events that the NRA used to develop a new brand of all-or-nothing politics and the same thing that drove those political outcomes also drove a new, more militant gun business. Part of that change involved the harnessing of ever-increasing radicalization. As we see in politics, this radicalization drives fearful voters and it drives gun sales.
Sadler: At the beginning of chapter six you acknowledge that the Second Amendment protects basic gun ownership, then go on to give the reader a look at how the gun industry, as firearms changed, dealt with laws that changed the ownership rules for guns. Can you walk us through your thinking when you were working for Kimber and how your views may have changed since? What was the catalyst for your thinking? How are we at a point today where, as you write, “a system in which gun executives like me no longer had to watch the news because no report, no matter how shocking, could produce legislative actions that threatened to remake our business.”?
BUSSE: Early in my career I assumed that a balance between gun ownership and responsibility existed, and for a while I think it did. I just intuitively understood that this meant the gun business was subject to societal changes and laws. There is a growing and dangerous move afoot today called “Second Amendment Absolutism” which espouses that there should be literally no restrictions on weapons ownership. Looking back, I guess I see the seeds of this movement, but at the time I just assumed that like all other facets of a functioning society, the gun issue involved give and take.
Sadler: Where do you stand now?
BUSSE: I do not think my views have changed much at all in the last couple decades. I still believe in gun ownership and the right to self defense. What has changed is what the NRA and gun industry believe is reasonable. I think our delicate balance between responsibility and freedom is now badly out of whack.
Sadler: The Prologue starts with a powerful scene with you and your son. In the run up to that event you write, “I realized I was probably the most frightened among the four of us.” What was going through your head as you thought about that?
BUSSE: It was both the most frightening “in the moment” event, and at the same time it was a weird out of body experience. As my son was attacked by an angry armed man, I was also experiencing it as if I were an executive for a mac and cheese company, walking into a grocery store and seeing my product on the shelf for the first time. It shook me.
Wilkinson: Part of your own awakening was triggered by what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut where, on Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 people, 16 of them being young kids? Please share a bit about how Sandy Hook shook you up because you mention it in the book.
BUSSE: Our boys were the same age as those kids at Sandy Hook. It was horrible and shocking. Even hardened people in the industry thought things would change after that. But we were wrong and I played a role as a go-between for a US senator and the NRA. Through the events in that part of my story I saw the inner workings of our modern politics up close. Very powerful people admitted to me that the stalemate that resulted was not about policy or dead kids, it was about political power. Being in the middle of that helped me see our changing politics for what they actually were.
Sadler: There are a number of perils, not the least of which is physical safety which you allude to in the Prologue. Beyond that there is rampant ugliness that comes from picking sides in a controversy. How are the issues you raise in the book indicative of what’s wrong with America today?
BUSSE: I believe that the unwillingness to criticize anyone from “your side” started with the firearms industry and it eventually manifested in the embrace of Donald Trump. The key was demonization of the other side. Once that happened, then anything could be believed or sacrificed, no matter how sacred. I fear that the politics developed by the NRA now pervade our entire country and those politics involve many radicalized groups who believe it is preferable to kill fellow citizens rather than compromise with them.
Wilkinson: US Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a farmer by profession who grew up hunting and knows his way around guns, appeared at a public event alongside you not long after the book appeared in autumn 2021. What is your friendship with Tester like and what does it say to have him involved in necessary discussions that you believe need to take place?
BUSSE: I have known Senator Tester to be uncommonly courageous and to be uncommonly stubborn about it. I tell one story in the book about him casting a vote that he knew would result in powerful election attacks and he did it even though he knew that bill would not pass. He cast that vote out of principle. Senators these days do not cast those kinds of votes. I am not star struck by any politician, but I do believe that if we had more Jon Testers, we would have a lot more civility in our country. It's going to take actions like his to break apart this dangerous political situation.
Sadler: I want to offer my personal praise here as a lifelong conservative hunter and angler. What sticks out to me is what a bold move you’ve made in writing the book. It takes real courage to do what you’ve done and are doing. You are cut from the same cloth as the late Jim Range—hunter, angler, conservative policy advisor on Capitol Hill, and conservationist with a highly developed sense of personal responsibility who wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind. Jim played an important role in the formation of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the rallying of hunting and rod and gun clubs around land protection. Do you see yourself as being courageous?
BUSSE: I knew Jim Range and I don’t think he saw himself as courageous. I think he saw himself as doing what needed to be done. I am not trying to assert false humility here, but I see this book as saying what needs to be said. I like to think Jim would have been proud of it.
If I did anything courageous, it was standing up for wild places at the National Press Club in 2004. It was that first and single act of defiance which set my course. All that followed has simply been doing what needed to be done.
"If I did anything courageous, it was standing up for wild places at the National Press Club in 2004. It was that first and single act of defiance which set my course. All that followed has simply been doing what needed to be done." —Busse
Wilkinson: You hunt, fish, head outdoors with the same conservation passions you’ve always had. You were involved with the formation and growth of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. You served as board chair and helped give them credibility given your professional background with the gun industry. Were you surprised that Backcountry Hunters and Anglers issued a public statement that put distance between you and them? Some who read the BHA statement were disappointed in the organization’s very public maneuver saying, “If not BHA in getting behind a hunter who is asking sensible questions about guns, then which group will lead?” Were you disappointed?
BUSSE: No, I understand that BHA does not operate in this space and I also understand that my path, initially at least, will be a very lonely one. While I worked with BHA, I was instrumental and supportive in the org’s adaptation of its unambiguous pro Second Amendment statement. People who read this book will realize that none of Gunfight is “anti-gun” despite the uninformed howls from those who do not read it. I think the BHA clarification is emblematic of the toxic politics that have been imposed on this country by the NRA and now all conservation orgs operate within this reality. Some of those orgs use or exacerbate that NRA toxicity, and some like BHA, stay laser focused on doing the work of protecting habitats where Americans love to hunt and fish. I respect an org that can stay focused on its mission.
Sadler: The former governor of your state, Marc Racicot, recently issued a warning about the deleterious effects of incivility, rancor and absence of objective truth on our democracy. Racicot’s conservative creds are well established. He served as Montana Secretary of State, was a key advisor to former President George W Bush and oversaw the Republican National Committee. You have worked in a complicated and increasingly right-wing political world. What concerns you these days?
BUSSE: I most fear the incentive system built into our modern politics. The NRA perfected a system where more fear, hate and conspiracy created desirable political outcomes for them. These same things also create growing gun sales. It's now been adopted into our modern politics and the only things that increase power are more of these disastrous components. I am worried that too much of our system relies on increasing these dangerous societal components. An obvious Acceleration may lead to manifestation of ugliness and those fears expressed by former governor Racicot. I am also worried that far too many people in this system are angry, armed and ready to play their role in some sort of civil war.
Wilkinson: Like Tom, I am fascinated by how the social entrenchment over guns informs a bigger backdrop. You’ve been inside the belly of the industry, seen the way it organizes and the alliances it creates often beyond the public eye. Guns are connected to attitudes pervasive in the military, and militia groups and even Bible study classes that teach the end times are near and Christians need to be armed and ready. When you hear retired generals warn about the potential for a violent civil war, how does that land on your ears?
BUSSE: It frightens but does not surprise me and I agree with their concern. Throughout my career, I got the feeling that an increasing number of people harbored some simplistic and sick desire to use their guns on their fellow citizens. In that way, Kyle Rittenhouse is a manifestation or warning. Early on, most gun companies knew to tamp down the insanity but over time the extremes were embraced as a way to grow sales. Certainly I believe this to be a minority of gun owners but because of the totalitarian nature of NRA/industry politics, we have a culture where no criticism of extremists is allowed. Instead, Rittenhouse is cheered as a hero. Armed men invading the Michigan capital are not criticized. We are at a crossroads and I think it's time for responsible gun owners to stand up and castigate this dangerous radicalization.
"Throughout my career, I got the feeling that an increasing number of people harbored some simplistic and sick desire to use their guns on their fellow citizens. In that way, Kyle Rittenhouse is a manifestation or warning. Early on, most gun companies knew to tamp down the insanity but over time the extremes were embraced as a way to grow sales." —Busse
Sadler: I want readers to not only read your book, but I’d like readers here to take away some advice from you on what citizens need to do if they are concerned about protecting the tradition of hunting, being conservationists and living in a resilient, stable democracy.
BUSSE: I want people to know that we live in a time which requires urgent action on so many topics and I think the issue of gun radicalization is central to them all. If we do not rebalance our lives and insert responsibility back into our culture, Americans will not have the luxury of debating the importance of their favorite constitutional amendments. None of them will matter if we do not square this away.
Wilkinson: We would be remiss if we didn’t ask you about your thoughts on conservation and what you see as the greatest threats to wild country. What should we be paying attention to?
BUSSE: I think the largest threat at present is that the NRA politics have made conservation and the environment political. As an example, many organizations that purport to be for wildlife conservation embraced and propagated the lie that national monument designation harmed hunting. They did this as a way to prove fealty to their preferred political candidate, Donald Trump. They cheered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s monument rollbacks even though those rollbacks were clearly the worst decision for wildlife and hunters. That is right out of the NRA playbook, which rewards sacrifice of any principle as long as it increases political power. As hunters and conservationists, we must stand up to these naked political plays and castigate those who make them. Climate is obviously the monster issue now, but we must first correct this more elementary issue so that we can tackle the climate issue and be a part of the solution.
Lake Powell in southern Utah, November 2021. The artificial reservoir, backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam, is today just 28 percent of "full pool" and is a flashing warning sign of droughts related to climate change, experts say. Tens of millions of Americans get the water they drink and use from the Colorado River. Busse says that rational discussions about climate change and conservation have been coopted by the same propaganda specialists who are using guns as a wedge issue to divide America in order to benefit corporate interests. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Sadler: You write that this is the story of a gunrunner turned gunfighter. You use that term gunfighter in a way that is very different from the way others use the term. Where does Ryan Busse go from here? What are your plans for the future? Who do you want to see play you in the movie?
I’ll address the movie issue first. There is quite a lot of film interest in this book because it's obviously a pretty wild ride and I think it's an important national story. My family has endured quite a lot because of the truths in the book, but one upside is that we have had numerous very funny conversations about actors who might play us in a film adaptation. Sara has quietly suggested that perhaps Ryan Reynolds could play me and then she could play herself. I don’t quite know what to make of that.
As to the title, it is illustrative about how complicated writing a book can be. Almost all aspects of getting a book published are far more difficult than it appears. This title is no exception and it was chosen after many conversations with editors and agents and advisors. It is indeed a play on what many think of when they hear the word “Gunfight.”
As to the future, those that know me also know that I believe in fighting for what is important. I am not yet sure what is next but I spent much of my life up until now being split between trying to balance a career and also a passion to make things right. I guess I thought I could do good while doing well. I want to find an existence where those things are not in constant struggle.
Wilkinson: My last question is intended to end on an upbeat note: As a hunter and angler, what ranks among your favorite days in the great outdoors and how do memories like that shape the way you see the world?
BUSSE: My time in wild places shapes everything about who I am. I think that somewhere inside every person who wants to achieve something is also a “reason” for wanting to accomplish. I believe that subconsciously, my reasons all have to do with wild places. I hate picking favorites and I think it is because I am always looking forward to something. A bird hunt with a new puppy, a family fishing trip, an antelope hunt with my sons, a wilderness exploration with my wife, Sara. Those things are what keep me going. In other words, the next one is my favorite because that is what gets me up in the morning.
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