By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
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 Ryan 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 a 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 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 many 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?
I asked Busse some questions.
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.
T.W.: 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?
R.B.: 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.
T.W.: 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 Cody, Wyoming-based writer Jim Zumbo, a popular contributor at Outdoor Life magazine, he was fired from his job and it created a chilling effect on writers and outdoor columnists. Can you comment on this phenomenon?
R.B.: Yes, in 2007 Jim Zumbo expressed what was, at the time, a commonly held antipathy toward 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.
T.W.: 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?
R.B.: 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 “let’s 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.
T.W.: 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?
R.B: 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.
T.W.: 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?
R.B.: 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.
T.W.: 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.
R.B.: 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 U.S. 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.
T.W.: U.S. 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?
R.B.: I have known Sen. 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.
T.W.: 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?
R.B.: 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.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by famed wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, about Grizzly Bear 399.