This story was reported by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America.
From his desk, Ryan Busse could hear his boss ranting that the country’s largest gun manufacturer, Smith and Wesson, had betrayed its peers in the industry. Just a year after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, Smith and Wesson had reached a settlement with the White House agreeing to a slew of safety measures, including trigger locks on all its new guns. Now other gun makers — including Kimber America, which employed Busse — would surely be pressured to do the same.
The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action accused Smith and Wesson of “craven self-interest” for striking a deal that would drive up manufacturing costs for everyone in an attempt to get itself out of a perilous lawsuit. After consulting with his boss, Busse, a young firearms salesperson, set to work calling and faxing his contacts at gun dealers across the country and asking them to boycott Smith and Wesson.
“We didn’t need to be told. We just rushed to sign up for battle,” Busse, now 52, wrote in Gunfight, a memoir about his years in the gun industry set for release Oct. 19. By the end of the day, Busse had convinced at least 50 major dealers to stop doing business with Smith and Wesson.
His loyalty was soon noticed by gun industry leaders. “Seemingly all of a sudden, I became a prominent player in the gun industry,” he wrote in the book.
Busse grew up on a cattle ranch in northwestern Kansas, and as a young boy had a lever-action rifle that he used to shoot rabbits and tin cans. His father, a stern but kind-hearted man who cared for their livestock from the predawn hours until he fell into his chair at the supper table, had little time to play with his three children. But pheasant hunting was an exception. Busse remembers the thrill of cleaning the guns together in the basement the night before, eating french toast in the predawn hours, and talking afterward about who had made a good shot and who had missed an easy one.
Busse’s grandfather was the son of “homesteaders” who got their first piece of land free from the government in the 1800s. He considered himself a “New Deal Democrat,” and Busse’s father spoke little of politics. But in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected and conservative talk radio became popular, Busse and many of his peers drifted toward the Republican party. “I was a go-along-to-get-along Republican like most people in farm flyover country,” Busse said. “It wasn’t a huge part of my identity.
If politics weren’t a big part of Busse’s life, guns were. From boyhood, he had dreamed of working in the gun industry. When he was just a few years over the drinking age, , he packed everything he owned in the back of a Chevy pickup and drove to Kalispell, Montana, to work for a tiny startup called Kimber America. Kimber guns were well-made and expensive — the kind that parents who hunt buy for their children for special occasions, and that serious hunters hold up as showpieces. Busse loved the guns, and he quickly became a master at convincing others to buy them. Early in his tenure he sold Kimber 1911 pistols to the LAPD SWAT team. He also sold scores of Kimber pistols and rifles to the NRA Foundation, which in turn auctioned and raffled them off at more than 1200 fundraising banquets each year. When he was hired, only a few dozen major gun dealers carried Kimber guns. Ten years later, more than 2000 did.
Busse’s sales numbers were impressive, but it was his role in the Smith and Wesson boycott less than 10 years into his career that secured his place as a gun industry loyalist and true believer. Richard Blumenthal, then the attorney general of Connecticut, and Eliot Spitzer, then the attorney general of New York, named Kimber in an antitrust lawsuit charging that it and other gun companies colluded to punish Smith and Wesson for trying to implement safety measures. Busse was deposed for five hours, but the suit was dropped a year later. A few years after that, he was nominated for the Shooting Industry Magazine Academy of Excellence Award, a prize that in other years was awarded to actor and NRA President Charleton Heston and firearms designer William Ruger.
Behind closed doors, Busse was starting to question some of the political positions he’d accepted all his life. His wife, Sara, who also came from a Kansas hunting family, challenged Busse to think deeply about whether the Republican party really stood for his values. “With every school shooting, things became more and more fraught,” she told The Trace. When two teenagers killed a dozen of their classmates at Columbine, Sara called her husband at work to ask if he felt complicit in the tragedy. Whispering into the phone, Busse protested that Kimber rifles were usually too expensive to be used as crime guns. But Sara balked. “That’s what you have to say for yourself?” Busse remembers her asking. “That they didn’t use your guns?”
“She was asking me some pretty hard questions, and I didn’t have awesome answers for her,” he said. “And that sort of started the evolution and opened my eyes.”
Several scary workplace incidents also caused him to question unregulated gun ownership. Once, Busse writes, a Kimber employee accidentally fired his gun in his office. Another time, an employee who was going through an emotional crisis fired his gun at his dog outside the office, leading employees to be ordered to stay away from the windows.
“Guns are inherently dangerous, and just because we’re gun experts doesn’t mean that we’re immune from the bad things that guns can do,” Busse said. “Like if you take a thousand people and give them all cars, eventually there’s going to be a car accident.”
The moment that really sealed Busse’s turn away from the conservative movement was when the Bush administration announced its intention to allow drilling for gas and oil in the Badger Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park in 2003. The breathtaking public lands were deeply important to Busse, who had always thought of conservation as inextricably linked to gun rights and hunting. Without thinking twice, he agreed to speak against the Republican president’s proposal at the National Press Club.
“The NRA and the industry praised conservation and wild spaces and hunters and tradition, but if any of those things were contradictory to their right-wing politics, they were easily sacrificed,” Busse told The Trace. “And to me, that’s supposed to be pretty foundational. If that’s the way it’s going to go, everything can be sacrificed.”
Busse’s public turn against a Republican administration caused industry insiders to look at him with distrust. But — perhaps because his position did not take on gun rights directly — after an initial hubbub at work, things quieted down. He continued to find himself criticized on message boards and teased half-heartedly at staff meetings. But in the years that followed, he became more outspoken when he saw Kimber and others in the industry taking stands he did not believe in. When Barack Obama was running for president, Busse decided to vote for him, since he felt Obama was more likely to protect public lands from development than his Republican opponent. He told his stunned coworkers as much. He began raising concerns to friends in the NRA and gun industry about racism and fearmongering at the NRA’s annual convention. He told industry leaders that he backed legislation that would have strengthened background checks on private gun sales after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. It failed. Six years later, after another school shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Sara’s anger boiled over. She posted on Facebook that she hoped people would back their prayers for Florida with action: “The ONLY way this will EVER change is if the NRA goes up in FLAMES!” The post quickly spread through the gun community, and someone in the Kimber marketing department asked Busse to tell his wife to take it down. He refused, but within a few hours she removed it anyway. She wanted her husband to leave his job on his own terms, not get fired.
“I lost my ever-loving mind,” Sara Busse told The Trace. If the NRA had not lobbied against what she considered basic gun safety legislation, she believed it would have passed . “The NRA could have been the saviors here, and instead they continued to be the devil.”
Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and a friend of Busse’s, said he had empathy for Busse as industry insiders began to turn against him. Deubel took a public stand against a New Mexico coyote killing contest in 2019 because he believes it is unethical to kill a living thing needlessly. “I got branded as an anti-hunter, who’d infiltrated this hunting organization,” he said. “Ryan called and said, ‘Don’t ever let public pressure and social norms cause you to stop doing the right thing.’”
In 2020, when Busse announced he was resigning from Kimber, Deubel gave Busse the same speech.
For a long time, Busse felt called to be the voice of the safe and responsible gun owner — a voice he felt had been all but silenced in the increasingly polarized world. But as he told his story, he has found himself warmly embraced by liberal leaders, while moderates have mostly fallen silent. Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Moms Demand Action Founder Shannon Watts wrote blurbs for his book, while people connected to the gun industry, including former NRA employees whom Busse once counted as friends, declined comment or did not return calls from the Trace asking about Busse. A spokesperson for Kimber America also declined to comment.
In an interview on the Kifarucast podcast, Donald Trump Jr. criticized Busse as a hypocrite. “You did it [sold guns] for 25 years,” he told the host . “You didn’t seem to have a problem with it until you found a way to capitalize on it… “
“Oh! Someone willing to talk bad about the gun industry. He’s a useful idiot to them,” Trump said.
In the summer of 2020, Busse accepted a position as an adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and last summer he was hired as a senior advisor to the gun violence prevention group Giffords. He wrote the book, he said, because Americans deserve to know how the country got so polarized, and to encourage the ocean of silent moderates that he believes are out there to find their voices.
Busse says he’s not sure what his life will be like when the book comes out. He worries about his two sons, ages 13 and 16, who are growing up in a community where guns and conservative — and sometimes extreme — politics are commonplace. “I worry that we’ve allowed them on this journey too much with us,” Sara Busse said. “I worry for their safety.” But Busse also said guns hold a special place in his boys’ lives, and it’s important to him to stand up for that, while keeping it apart from the far right ideology that they have become enmeshed with.
“For a certain part of the population, guns are symbols,” Busse said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that. They are symbols of things that you wish were true, things that once were true and things you want to be true again.”
This story was reported by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America.