With ‘Gunfight,’ an Insider Takes on a Community That Was Once His Own
Guns have been a constant in Ryan Busse’s life story. His father taught him to shoot as a boy growing up on a ranch in the high plains of Kansas. He and his brother used to wander the land, shooting at rabbits and tin cans with a lever-action rifle that reminded him of the Old West.
That upbringing led him to a dream job at the gun manufacturer Kimber. Over 25 years, he rose to become a senior executive and an influential force within the firearm industry.
“I am responsible for selling millions of guns,” Busse wrote at the start of his book, “Gunfight,” which Public Affairs released in October.
The claim was not a boast. It was more like the beginnings of an apology.
With the book, which is part memoir, part treatise on gun policy in America, Busse has inserted himself into the center of a seemingly intractable debate that recharges each time the country confronts another burst of deadly gun violence, including mass shootings, police killings and fatal confrontations like the one involving Kyle Rittenhouse.
Over years of arguing, views have hardened and the political divide has become increasingly difficult to bridge, making Busse a surprising and polarizing figure as a longtime insider in the firearm industry and the culture surrounding it who has now cast himself as a critic.
Proponents of stricter gun restrictions have been drawn to Busse’s moral inventory wrestling with the gun industry’s role, and his own, in arming an escalating culture of gun violence. (As he introduced Busse on his podcast, former Senator Al Franken told listeners, “I think you’re just going to love this guy.”)
It has also been assailed by a community that Busse once considered his own. Gun rights supporters have labeled him as a defector and hypocrite, and questioned his allegiance to the Second Amendment. Donald Trump Jr. said Busse was a “useful idiot” who was co-opted by their enemies.
Still, the response to the book reflects just how much of a challenge it will be for “Gunfight” to penetrate the high-decibel discourse and reach its intended audience of politically moderate gun owners like Busse.
“I don’t like guns any less than I did, or any more than I did,” he said from his home in Montana during a video interview in October. “I shoot with my boys. I hunt every chance I get. I still own a lot of guns. Many of the best parts of my life have been centered around guns or using guns, so in that way, I don’t think I’ve changed at all. What has changed, though, is a radical shift in what the industry believes to be decent and responsible.”
“Gunfight” is one of several recently published books exploring a transformation gripping the nation’s gun culture. In many ways, the books mirror what’s happening in conservative politics.
In “Misfire,” published in November, the investigative journalist Tim Mak digs into the National Rifle Association as it has been shoved to the brink of collapse over internal strife and financial turbulence. “Firepower,” by Matthew J. Lacombe and published in March, is an academic analysis of decades of editorials from the N.R.A.’s American Rifleman magazine.
Last year, Joshua L. Powell, a former senior N.R.A. official, wrote a memoir after he was forced out of the organization, and the investigative journalist Frank Smyth chronicled the history of the organization in his book, “The N.R.A.”
With “Gunfight,” Busse, who said he left the industry voluntarily in 2020, stands out because he is one of the few insiders to speak publicly, and critically, about the insular culture of gun companies.
He acknowledged that he was not a silent bystander. When Smith & Wesson reached an agreement after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School that included adding a number of safety measures to new guns, including trigger locks, Busse wrote, he successfully organized dozens of gun dealers to boycott the company.
At Kimber, where Busse spent the entirety of his career, he believed he had carved out a spot in an esteemed and sober-minded company. He described it as being like the Tiffany & Company of the firearm industry. He believed that it was on the right side of an “unspoken line of bifurcation,” adding, “We all knew that higher-quality, more expensive, lower-capacity guns” — the kind his company made — “were far less likely to be used in crime.”
Even so, the industry as a whole was evolving in a way he found irresponsible. That shift crystallized for him in 2010 at an N.R.A. convention in Charlotte, N.C., where he saw a large poster advertising the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle that said, “Consider your man card reissued.” The slogan would become part of a lawsuit being waged by families of people killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which argues that the gun manufacturer had employed militaristic marketing campaigns that appealed to so-called couch commandos and troubled young men like the perpetrator of the 2012 attack.
“I remember lots of us in the industry kind of whispering to each other, looking at each other like, geez,” Busse said. “Norms were being broken, and lots of us who had been in the industry for quite a while did not quite know what to make of that.”
That trend in marketing, he said, has only intensified, pointing out that one company now markets a rifle as the “Urban Super Sniper.”
The massacre at Sandy Hook, during which 20 first graders and six adults were killed, was a decisive moment. “My kids were almost exactly the same age as those Sandy Hook kids,” Busse said. “I don’t know that there’s ever been anything that horrific.”
He added: “It was sort of like, OK, if this doesn’t spur legislation, nothing will.” (The attack did not lead to new federal regulations.)
Still, nearly eight years passed before Busse left his job as Kimber’s vice president of sales. He delayed, he said, because he thought he could make a difference from inside the industry. There were also practical concerns: He was earning $210,000 a year, he said, but he was 50 years old, had a family and could scarcely afford to leave his wages behind.
His wife, Sara Busse, kept pressing him to leave. In 2019, when they were celebrating their 20th anniversary, she sequestered him in a hotel room and said, “We’re not leaving until we have a plan.”
“We cannot be a part of this,” she recalled saying in an interview. “He was part of the gun industry, but for me, it felt like we were complicit — our family was living off of the gun industry.”
Busse left Kimber in August 2020 and dived into writing the book. In June, he became a senior adviser for Giffords, the gun safety organization founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was gravely injured in a 2011 mass shooting.
His former colleagues and allies have publicly disavowed him or distanced themselves from him.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a conservation group where Busse had once served as chairman, said in a statement that the organization was not connected in any way to the book.
Leslie Edelman, Kimber’s owner, declined to comment on the book or Busse’s departure. But after Busse published a letter in The Sidney Herald and other newspapers in Montana criticizing legislation to loosen gun laws, Kimber released a statement distancing itself from him and said the company was “a proud supporter of our Constitutional rights to keep and bear arms.”
But Busse’s family and friends outside of the industry have urged him on. Former colleagues have sent him texts quietly encouraging him as well.
“I just think the gun issue has become so partisan and polarized, and the reality of where people are is not reflected in how the issue gets framed,” Matt Leow, a friend of Busse’s, said as he was preparing to take his son out for a day of hunting. “It gets framed as gun nuts versus gun grabbers. There’s no place for most of us to land.”
Busse is trying to mobilize a group in the middle ground. He wrote in the book that he imagines people like his father, who, as he wrote, “embrace safety and reason.”
“Change is not going to happen from the outside in,” Busse said. “It has to start with someone like me.”