‘Gunfight’ Is One Of The Most Important Books You May Ever Read About Guns In America – Mountain Journal

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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.

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.

For the Busse clan, hunting is a sacred family tradition and a way of teaching the next generation to be responsible around guns, understand why wildlife and habitat protection are important, and come together around shared values based on respect.

For the Busse clan, hunting is a sacred family tradition and a way of teaching the next generation to be responsible around guns, understand why wildlife and habitat protection are important, and come together around shared values based on respect.

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. 

Frustrating to the firearms industry is how much traction Busse's book has received and the scrutiny it is bringing to arguments for no or limited control of guns by the NRA. Recently, Busse appeared on The Daily Show with host Trevor Noah

Frustrating to the firearms industry is how much traction Busse's book has received and the scrutiny it is bringing to arguments for no or limited control of guns by the NRA. Recently, Busse appeared on The Daily Show with host Trevor Noah

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

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?


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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