‘I couldn’t stay quiet’: Ryan Busse’s one-man crusade against guns, NRA ‘radicalization’

Gun Rights

KALISPELL – Sometimes, Ryan Busse freely concedes, his one-man crusade against the “radicalization” of the firearms industry and National Rifle Association is a lonely endeavor.

But then his phone rings. Or his text flashes. Or his Twitter pings.

All reminders Busse isn’t alone at all.

On a recent weekday morning, for instance, the 52-year-old former gun-industry executive and jet-lagged author of “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America” had a solemn reminder of the tragedy he and especially his wife, Sara, dub their “tipping point”: A call from a Connecticut woman whose son and 25 others were riddled with AR-15 rounds at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Next was a second appearance on former senator Al Franken’s podcast, the two inserting Saturday Night Live-esque levity into the otherwise deadly serious topic of gun-culture threats to American democracy.

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Busse recently wrote “Gunfight: My battle against the industry that radicalized America” where he describes in detail his experience working for the gun industry, its ties with the NRA and the culture and ideologies it harbors.

For Busse, who spent “25 years and four days” as an industry innovator and leader but now warns of its tectonic shift from advocating responsibility and reason to fomenting anger and grievance for power and profit, those calls and his rapid-fire unvarnished tweeting represent just another day at the Kalispell home office — when he’s there.

Five days earlier, Busse had engaged a rapt crowd of 700 at Chautauqua, New York, on the stage where Salman Rushdie was stabbed. He’s given a closed-door briefing for senators at the behest of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, has twice testified before Congress, and is a fixture with media outlets not holstered at the hip with the NRA.

Small wonder.

Busse is, by his own admission and lament, the one industry ex-pat — out of the millions who have worked for it, or paid NRA dues, or like him simply value gun ownership as an intrinsic part of America’s fabric — who has pierced the veil of gunsmoke to speak out credibly against a culture that prosperously fed, clothed and housed him.

“A unicorn,” Sara Busse describes him, her eyes misting with pride.

Busse was once the sales savvy behind the stylish Kimber America brand, selling millions of guns. He won industry awards. He also orchestrated a ruthless dealer boycott of Smith & Wesson, ultimately costing its CEO his job, after the company went rogue by negotiating with the Clinton Administration after the 1999 Columbine massacre.

Now, in his book and on the stump, Busse takes aim at his former industry, and even himself, for an evolution he realized two decades ago was “really going off the rails.”

“Why me? I don’t know,” he says reflectively. “I just happened to be somebody who decided to be critical of it while still being in it, and that just doesn’t happen in the gun industry. If it’s an affliction, if it’s a blessing, whatever. I just cared too much about the stuff. I felt like the industry betrayed me and is betraying all of America, and I literally just couldn’t look away from it. It just ate at me every single day.

“I couldn’t stay quiet.”

“We got into this through 30 years of incremental bad decisions that made things marginally worse and we have to start making decisions that make things marginally better.” — Ryan Busse at his home in Kalispell on Aug. 24.

Busse is sitting at the dining room table in his spacious west Kalispell home, an elk rack above a stone fireplace presiding over his left shoulder. With his rugged build, salt-and-pepper beard beneath a bald scalp, and checkered flannel shirt, he looks as if he bushwhacked straight from the pages of a Cabela’s catalogue.

A few feet away, near picture windows framing a lush side-yard of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, a life-sized mountain goat appears poised to leap onto a rocky cornice. Photos of the couple and their lanky sons, high schoolers Lander (Wyoming) and Badge (Badger-Two Medicine), are mostly set outdoors, some with firearms.

At his feet, bird dogs Aldo (Leopold) and Teddy (Roosevelt) circle restlessly, their internal clocks issuing an early whiff of grouse season.

And locked in a safe, out of sight, are more firearms than Busse has bothered to count.

“I honestly don’t know how many I have,” he said.

It is this persona that helps explain how Busse is thriving with a narrative — or, at least, hasn’t been muzzled — where all others fail.

Busse speaks firearms fluently. He grew up with guns on a conservation-oriented cow-calf, wheat and sunflower ranch in northwest Kansas, where pinging tin cans and rabbits or hunting pheasant and deer is a natural pastime when the nearest fast-food hangout is 60 dusty miles away.

At the time, NRA membership was a literal badge of responsibility, worn on a hunting vest for passing a firearms-safety course. Busse recalls an industry writer showing up to a popular shooting event on the ranch with an AR-15 and being roundly scolded to stow it away.

“Everything fun or family-oriented that we did usually involved guns,” he said. “That’s my attachment to my culture growing up.”

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Ryan Busse pictured at his home in Kalispell on Aug. 24 with a sample of his personal gun collection. Busse, a former firearms executive who helped build Kimber America into a top-tier gun company, has broken his silence to talk about his one-man ex-insider crusade against an industry and culture he helped build.

So after playing baseball at little Bethany College in Kansas he gravitated to a vocation that allowed him to be outdoors and around guns. First it was briefly with Burris Optics, but then he and a colleague were asked to run a two-man shop for Kimber, a fledgling outfit in Clackamas, Oregon, known for its craftsmanship. Told they could settle anywhere, northwest Montana was the idyllic fit.

Kimber was hand-to-mouth when Busse arrived as an entry-level executive, but he devised a dealer-direct sales approach revolving around the revered Kimber 1911 pistol that quickly elevated him to the vice president’s chair, hawking products he calls the “Porsche, BMW or Jaguar” of firearms. Twice he was among three Industry Person of the Year finalists.

“We sold really nice stuff and marketed it in very desirable ways and people in the industry appreciated the way we marketed it,” he recalls. “So we got lots of friends and I got a lot of recognition because of that.”

His life, he reckoned, was perfectly scripted.

It took five epiphanies over 18 years to drive him from it.

Doubts first emerged in 2000, amid the boycott that nearly crushed Smith & Wesson. Bowing to public and legal pressure, the iconic company with the “Insured by Smith & Wesson” bumper-sticker bravado had agreed to handgun locks and authorized-dealer background checks, among other compromises intolerable to Second Amendment absolutists.

The boycott, which resulted in a subpoena and New York grilling of Busse for potential antitrust-law violations, jump-started today’s radicalization, he now believes.

“I had developed an unthinking loyalty to the industry just because I thought I should, and I wanted to make my mark,” he said. “I liken it to 18-year-old kids who signed up for World War II. You didn’t ask, you just ran and did it like it was your patriotic duty. I kind of felt that way for my first few years in the industry.

“I look back on that as a lesson I learned and something I never wanted to do again.”

Four years later, Busse, an eventual board chairman of Montana Conservation Voters and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, spoke passionately at the National Press Club against oil-and-gas exploration of Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine roadless area, country so pristine it moved him to tears when he first solo hiked deep into it. As a kid whose father was among the first in Kansas to farm according to Conservation Reserve Program principles, he’d developed a spiritual connection to wild spaces even as he understood the tilled soil paid the bills.

The subsequent backlash, especially among hunters, surprised and chagrined him. Busse assumed hunters would revere such habitat. He decided then he was “not going to look away from stuff I knew was wrong.”

“For a lot of Americans, guns and gun ownership is something emblematic like Campbell’s soup and Americana. It’s not bad, don’t demonize them.” – Ryan Busse at his home in Kalispell on Aug. 24

Though he was weaned on Rush Limbaugh as a teen, Busse had taken a liking to presidential candidate Barack Obama by 2007. To reveal it publicly or even to insider friends, though, could cost him his job — “I know it sounds crazy, but it was totally true,” he says — because of the NRA narrative that Obama was coming for America’s guns.

Even worse was an insidious ugliness.

“It went from an industry never selling more than 7 million guns (annually) before Barack Obama was elected to selling 16 million guns, but that didn’t bother me,” he recalled. “It was the reasons that bothered me. So much of that happened because of irrational fears about the first Black president. Or the conspiracy theory that he was going to rewrite the Constitution.

“Heck, I was trying to build a gun company and I wanted to sell more guns, but I didn’t want to sell them because people were fearful of a Black president. That really started to scare me.”

Then, the “tipping point”: Sandy Hook. At the time, his boys were near the same age as the victims.

Until Sandy Hook, Ryan says he was “someone who tried to do well while doing good” while Sara, his conscience prodder, was “focused on doing good and the doing well part will take care of itself.”

Sandy Hook flipped him. They began to plot his exit, culminating when Sara locked the door of their hotel room on the night of their 20th wedding anniversary and told him they weren’t leaving until he had a plan.

“For me, viscerally, I said, ‘You can’t be doing this’,” remembers Sara, 45, a tall, trim and athletic Kansas State alum who met Ryan at his brother Cory’s wedding a quarter-century ago. “This literally feels like we have blood on our hands.”

Even so, it was yet six more years before Busse, who still thought he had the cachet to create change from the inside, extricated himself from career paying $200,000 annually.

On Valentine’s Day 2018, a shooter with an AR-15 killed 17 and injured 17 at high school in Parkland, Florida. In a moment of rage, Sara posted on Facebook that “the ONLY way this will EVER change is if the NRA goes up in FLAMES. Period.”

Ryan called Sara from Kimber and told her he was “catching a lot of heat”. Did he want her to remove the post? He replied he wouldn’t tell her what to do.

Sara deleted it.

“I wasn’t thinking,” she recalled. “I was just being a mom. I was so angry. But I was not willing for him to bear that cost.”

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Ryan Busse with his wife, Sara, at their home in Kalispell. After publishing his book, Ryan said he received an “overwhelming” show of support from the public.

Said Ryan: “That whole thing is so emblematic. She put up that post and it was like an hour or two and the phone calls were pouring in at Kimber. When I talk about that sort of totalitarian enforcement thing we felt we lived under, it happened very fast.”

Busse left Kimber in August 2020. And sat down to write. 

Initially he considered a cheeky wild-West hybrid of TV’s “Breaking Bad” and “The Office”. His Missoula literary agent, Julie Stevenson, pushed back.

“It was clear to me from the moment I met Ryan that he needed to speak his truth and that he’d been pressured and silenced for a long time in all the subtle ways that an oppressive and authoritarian culture can silence a person,” Stevenson said. “So I told him that this needed to be a serious and impactful account of what he had actually experienced in the firearms industry, of what made him recoil in disgust even though he loved hunting and appreciated well-made rifles.

“I told him he needed to write a story that his sons would be proud of.”

Ryan and Sara braced for “Gunfight” to unleash vitriol, much like they’d already experienced up close and too personal.

During a tense 2020 Black Lives Matter rally in Kalispell, a man in a red MAGA hat with a holstered pistol screamed from spittle range at 12-year-old Badge, jabbing a finger in his chest and berating him as “an evil little bastard.”

Ryan, who recalls the scene as “terrifying”, stepped between them and told the man he wouldn’t walk upright for months if he didn’t back off. The man moved away, calling him “an evil f*cker” as a parting shot.

“I mean, it was crazy,” Ryan said.

As publication neared, Ryan and Sara fretted about safety, especially for Lander and Badge, also dedicated activists — “I have a lot to say about my dad,” Lander said. “I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s doing” — in their own right. They imagined AR-15s aimed at them from the nearby hills, perhaps even along the forested asphalt road to their home, where they pass scribbled conspiratorial rants on a chain-link fence. They considered moving.

To their surprise and relief, the reaction since the October publishing of “Gunfight” has been overwhelmingly supportive, perhaps due in part because the industry has purposefully ignored it — though Busse suspects that’ll change with the Sept. 23 announcement that he has been appointed to the Interior Department’s Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council. He said he receives a steady stream of grateful emails, texts and social media responses. Book signings, including in Whitefish and Kalispell, are routinely rewarding.

“I’m not anti-gun, but I am anti-radicalization of guns.” – Ryan Busse at his home in Kalispell on Aug. 24.

“In some ways it was a little anticlimactic because of the incredible nastiness we thought would happen right off the bat that I detested and was scared about,” Busse said. “Not that I don’t get ugly comments. (Donald) Trump Jr. attacked me and I get some of that. But for the most part it has been positive. 

“We anticipated like 50 to 1 trolls to praise, and it’s been 50 to 1 praise to trolls.”

Not that there isn’t pain. They’re estranged from some family members. And they’ve lost longtime friends, notably from Ryan’s old social circles.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers publicly distanced itself. So did Kimber. Some hunting groups label him a traitor.

“The thing for me that’s probably the most surprising about the whole thing is how incredible the response has been but also how lonely it has been,” Sara said. “It’s just very lonely to be a leader. So while it’s been good, the reality is also that it’s hard. I was always the one in the background saying it’s going to take a strong white man to bust down the door to let everybody else through this thing, and that’s what has happened.

“You just don’t realize how lonely it is being the one there at the door.”

Busse can rattle off names of the few who dared question the industry’s direction, all silenced or allowed back only after unfettered contrition.

He says he’s avoided such a fate because firearms are no longer his livelihood. “Gunfight”, speaking engagements and advising the Biden Administration and Giffords advocacy group pay the bills, along with Sara’s marketing company.

“His message has just been so important to some of the successes we’ve had,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, a gun-violence law center founded by former Arizona representative Gabby Giffords in 2013 two years after she was shot during a Tucson rally. “It takes a lot of courage to step away from a career and a livelihood. It takes courage to speak up against an industry that’s aligned with some really scary extremist far-right groups.

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Busse, 52, worked for more than 25 years as an innovator and leader in the firearms industry. Now he’s taken a step back to talk about the gun industry’s shift from advocating responsibility and safety to fomenting anger and grievance for political power and profit.

“He started with one book and one voice, and as soon as he started speaking out and as soon as people started reading his book, he wasn’t alone for long.”

Said Tester: “The Second Amendment is pretty damned important to Montana, and it’s pretty damned important to Ryan. He understands guns and the important role they play in Montana and many other parts of the country, and that gives him a unique voice in the debate about community safety. He is honestly and earnestly concerned about the direction of our country, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind.”

Amid such backing, Busse is even more empowered to take on the industry and NRA, which he says are shamelessly exploiting fear, especially in young men. Such “couch commandos”, he said, represent a tiny fraction of Americans, but they are aggrieved, loud and armed.

“The byproduct of the culture that is created is directly contributing to outcomes like Buffalo and Uvalde and Highland Park,” he said, “because these are for the most part troubled young men, teenagers in many instances, who are told they, too, can be a tactical bad ass and solve their problems by grabbing this gun. There’s a direct line to the marketing and divisive fearful conspiratorial political rhetoric that the industry is engaged in, and I don’t see any of that lessening now.

“I see it getting worse. It can get a lot f*cking worse.”

“There’s a twisted sense of what guns have become to so many people that they almost wish for a time when they could use guns to overthrow a democracy.” – Ryan Busse at his home in Kalispell on Aug. 24

Does Busse see hope? Yes. He points to 65 senators voting in June for the country’s first major gun-safety legislation in 28 years.

Getting there, he said, required reframing the issue.

Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, Buffalo, Highland Park and Las Vegas have all been rationalized as “single bad actor” incidents. What can’t be rationalized away, he said, is what he calls “domestic terrorism” groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Boogaloo Boys organizing around firearms.

“That distresses people a lot more than a single bad-actor thing, as horrific as they are,” Busse said. “Many politicians aren’t leaders, right? They’re followers. They sense the sort of angst that is in the American public. There is angst or you wouldn’t have 65 senators voting for it.”

As much as Busse decries the industry and NRA evolution, he also looks inward. To that end, “Gunfight” has been cathartic.

“Whatever part I played in setting that in motion, I regret it because that’s led to really disastrous outcomes for the country,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking it’s a mea culpa or how sorry I am. I did the best I could and this is what happened, and the country needs to know it. This is the true story of how our country got here.

“I don’t sugarcoat my role in it. I don’t run from it. I’m honest about it.”

Why him? Sara Busse thinks she knows.

“I hate to use a biblical term, but it’s because the scales are off his eyes,” she said. “Once you’ve seen something, you can’t un-see it. And I think eventually he just saw.”

He did, though he insists it isn’t him that changed. It’s the gun culture.

He knows he isn’t alone, but voices like his remain scarce or, in his old industry, nonexistent. 

“So,” he said, “here I am.”

Watch the full video interview with Ryan Busse here:

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