Gunfight: A Montanan’s fight against the gun industry (from the inside out)

By: - November 14, 2021 9:55 am

Gunfight illustration. (Illustration by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

In his book “Gunfight,” Kalispell-based former gun industry executive Ryan Busse makes the case that the National Rifle Association is at the heart of our national political divide.  

Busse connects the NRA’s use of conspiracy and fear to drive memberships and points out that people have begun to carry AR-15s into government buildings, something the author sees as an irresponsible act of intimidation. Released in October 2021 by PublicAffairs, the memoir recounts the shift in gun culture during a 25-year period and Busse’s ultimate decision to leave his position as vice-president of sales for Kimber Manufacturing, a firearms producer.

In an interview with the Daily Montanan, Busse said he sees a growing number of people who “really would like to kill anyone they disagree with, especially dedicated public servants.” Busse referenced Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades, who joked about shooting school superintendents during a gathering on Nov. 1 at Crosspoint Community Church in Missoula. Rhoades, who later apologized for his remark, represents “Stand Up Montana” and several local Missoula parents in a lawsuit against mask mandates in Missoula public schools.

The same week Rhoades made his comment, U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale was accused of accepting large illegal campaign donations from the NRA. These two incidents exemplify the warped power guns and the gun industry have in politics today, Busse said. He believes at one time, either of these incidents would have had people aghast. 

At a book reading on Oct. 28 at Elk River Books in Livingston, Busse brought up an event from a couple days prior that was held by the conservative student group Turning Point USA. During the event, a member of the audience got up and asked, “when do we get to use the guns?” 

“I am distressed at the fact that something I think is wholesome and healthy, or should be, has been hijacked away from me, and in many ways away from our state and our country, to use as some political cudgel to radicalize people,” Busse said in a later interview with the Daily Montanan. 

Throughout this book, Busse talks about his love of guns and firearm craftsmanship. In particular, he relishes the moment when Kimber designed its 1911 pistol. However, his passion for guns is put at odds with his disillusionment with gun culture during the more than two decades he spent prospering at Kimber, founded in Clackamas, Oregon, and now headquartered in Troy, Alabama.

As Busse became more aware of the motivations behind gun sales, notably the spike in gun purchases after the Columbine High School massacre, he questioned the ethical implications and the role of his industry. 

“The fact that gun sales spiked after shootings or in periods of tumult in the country — I really detested that,” Busse said.

Hate, fear, conspiracy theories, and distrust of the other are all things people will read about in the book and are elements that exploded during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter rallies, Busse said. Those factors drive voting now on the right side of the political spectrum and happen to be the same ones that drive sales of guns, he said.

In the memoir, Busse chronicles how the NRA’s politics changed after the 1994 crime bill. During Bill Clinton’s administration, the NRA criticized lawmakers who voted for the crime bill, but did not demonize them, Busse wrote. To prevent passage of anything similar to the crime bill, the NRA took an absolutist political stance against any gun laws. It began rating politicians, which made dissenting from the organization dangerous if lawmakers relied on its support. 

Almost 20 years after the crime bill, the Sandy Hook massacre, when a gunman armed with a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S Shorty killed 20 children and six adults, would test the strength of the NRA’s resolve against any new gun measures. 

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey put forward an amendment to strengthen background checks on private gun purchases in an attempt to close the loophole allowing people to buy a gun without a background check at gun shows. Pressure from the NRA helped to ensure the amendment would fail. 

After the massacre, the NRA coined its new rallying cry: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Montana Sports Shooting Association President Gary Marbut believes this is a fundamental truth to why people must have guns to defend themselves, he said in an interview with the Daily Montanan. Marbut founded MSSA and is a firearms expert and self-defense instructor, as well as an advocate for gun owners and hunters in the state. 

A growing number of people want to protect themselves, Marbut said. Incidents in which a person is murdered can be over in under 60 seconds, he said. The police aren’t going to be able to do more than “string the yellow tape,” Marbut said. 

Defunding the police works for him, he said: “I don’t know why I personally need the police.”

This legislative session, Marbut, a frequent presence at the Capitol, supported House Bill 102, which allows people to conceal carry on campus and other places without a permit. The NRA also lobbied in Montana this session. HB102 was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte, though a district court judge stopped its implementation while the court resolves legal challenges. 

In Busse’s book, he categorizes two different kinds of gun owners. The group Busse sees himself in are those from a hunting and ranching background who see guns as part of their heritage. The other group are those who worship weapons of war and can’t wait to spill blood in a civil war. In his book, the author describes how in the mid-2000s the NRA and the National Shooting Sport Foundation began pushing the line “there could be no daylight between sporting guns and an AR-15.” Everyone should stand together.

Marbut doesn’t believe the two groups are so different or distinct from one another. A lot of overlap exists between the “Elmer Fudds,” who believe all they need is their grouse shotgun and a pistol, and the “hardcore people,” who own fully automatic rifles, Marbut said. 

When people use AR-15s to demonstrate at government buildings, Marbut said it isn’t any different from using a person’s right to free speech. 

“It’s irrational to fear the mere presence of guns,” Marbut said. 

Busse disagrees. When guns are used as a tool of intimidation, it should not be “tolerated, normalized or ignored.” 

“There is no civility when one party is standing over the other with a loaded gun,” Busse wrote in the final pages of his book. 

He said he hopes responsible gun owners who feel their voices are getting drowned out by radicals will read this book and know they aren’t alone. Already, Busse said he has received letters from just those kinds of people telling him they read his book and are ready to have a conversation about our national gun policies. 

“I believe the vast majority of gun owners find this sort of radicalized crap we all see or read about on the news as very detestable,” Busse said. “I hope those people stand up and we can make a difference.”

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Ashley Nerbovig
Ashley Nerbovig

Ashley Nerbovig is a journalist whose previous stops include the Missoulian, The Billings Gazette and the Detroit Free Press, where she covered the 2020 election and the topics of misinformation and disinformation. She went to the University of Montana's school of journalism.