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Former gun industry insider explains why he left to fight for the other side

Ryan Busse went to work for the firearms manufacturer Kimber America, where he was so good at marketing the weapons that he became a rising star of the industry. But over the years, he became disillusioned when he saw the NRA refuse to consider gun controls after mass shootings. His new book is 'Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America'.


Other segments from the episode on November 22, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 22, 2021: Interview with Ryan Busse; Review of book "The Sinner and the Saint.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today, Ryan Busse, is a staunch critic of the National Rifle Association and advocate for reform of the nation's gun laws. But for decades, Busse was a gun industry insider, devising marketing strategies that made him a celebrated executive among arms manufacturers and, at a critical juncture, leading an industry-wide effort to punish one gun-maker who dared negotiate stricter gun controls with the Clinton administration. In a new book, Busse lifts the veil on the gun industry and its close alliance with the NRA, detailing their reliance on stoking fear and hatred to boost weapons sales.

He says over his career, he saw the business change from one in which manufacturers refused to market high-powered automatic weapons to the public to one in which gun-makers and the NRA embraced military-style weapons and tactical gear, branding them as symbols of masculinity and patriotism. Busse eventually began to publicly criticize some of the industry's policies and favored political candidates before leaving the business altogether. His new book is called "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America."

Well, Ryan Busse, welcome to FRESH AIR. You live in Montana, and you open the book with a description of an incident that occurred at a Black Lives Matter demonstration or I guess one of the demonstrations that occurred after the killing of George Floyd. You want to share that story with us?

RYAN BUSSE: Thanks so much for having me, Dave. And yes, I do open the book with my family attending a Black Lives Matter protest here in Kalispell, Mont. And it was oddly like a lot of that time in 2020 across America, a time of tremendous turmoil and, oddly, some hope, too. I saw a number of protesters numbering well over a thousand here in Kalispell, Mont., northwestern Montana, which is well known as an area of some measure of white supremacy and ugliness. Yet we saw that sort of really heartening protest and solidarity bubble up.

And as my family and I attended that, it wasn't long before one of the many self-appointed Second Amendment patriots who was there, these armed men, many of them waving flags, most of them with AR-15s, many of them with MAGA hats, one of them attacked my young son, who was 12 at the time and perhaps 75 pounds soaking wet. And this gentleman started screaming obscenities at him and then began poking him in the chest. And he was armed, and I stood back and looked at that as if I was witnessing sort of the product that my industry had put on the shelf and I was very frightened and aghast.

DAVIES: Right. And you did intervene in that case, right?

BUSSE: I did. I jumped between them. I certainly was not armed. I know we're dealing with a lot of armed folks at various rallies and protests across the country now and trials of same. But I was not - I don't believe in waving a match over gas like that. I stood between them and told him to back down, and he did. And it was a very, very tense moment, frightening.

DAVIES: Right. But it connected with what you had done with so much of your career. So let's talk about that course and how it took shape. Tell us about your childhood, where you grew up, how guns fit into you and your family's lives then.

BUSSE: Yeah. So I think an important part of my book is for the reader to understand how it is that so many people across the country become so attached to these inanimate things, guns. And for me, I grew up in what, you know, is pejoratively called flyover country on a ranch and farm. And many of the best times of my life were spent - you know, I joke that I was born with a shotgun in one hand and a rifle in the other. I grew up hunting and shooting with my father. Guns were things we used on the ranch and farm. We worked very hard. And then the few times that we got to spend together doing something fun and enjoyable, oftentimes it was with a gun.

And so guns became to me and my family, to my grandfather, to my brother, things that represented times that we wish to be true or things that we wish to be true. You know, different than an inanimate tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver, these are things that were - became very culturally important to us. And I think it's extremely important for readers to understand how guns have become intertwined in cultural identities like they did for me as a young kid.

DAVIES: When you say you get together to have fun and guns were a part of that, that was - what? - target practice.

BUSSE: Yeah. Target shooting or pheasant hunting, you know, just shooting cans, target shooting with my brother. These were fun, enjoyable things that we did. They certainly weren't radical or extreme, or they didn't have a political tinge to them. They were just things that American kids did.

DAVIES: You said that your dad made it very clear these are not toys. They can be deadly. Did you think of guns as things that can and would kill people?

BUSSE: My father always impressed upon me that guns were certainly things that could do that. As a boy and as somebody growing up, I don't think that was at the fore of my consciousness. Really, the fun things that I wanted to do with those guns, whether it be pheasant hunting or target shooting or whatever, those were really at the fore. But he made sure that I never forgot that they were, in essence, a dangerous thing.

DAVIES: So you and a friend went to work not for one of the giants of the firearms industry but for an emerging niche gun-maker.-Tell us about this company, Kimber.

BUSSE: Yeah, it was a small fledgling firearms company that had gone bankrupt once or twice, and it was owned by, I guess, what you could say is a crazy guy from Australia who was also living out a firearms dream. It was based in Portland, Ore., at the time. And we convinced him to allow us to have a sales and marketing office in Kalispell, Mont. Looking back at it, I think it was kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants sort of decision. He really didn't have anything to lose. We thought we were joining up with sort of a Porsche, BMW, Jaguar sort of, you know, high-end company. Little did we know it was just barely held together with, as I say, chewing gum and baling wire.

DAVIES: You know, there are a lot of great stories about working for this company, which are kind of tangential to the main point of the book, so we won't go into them in detail. But I will note that the guy who hired you, I think your first interview was breakfast at a strip club. He regularly brought strippers to to parties for the staff of the company. And then later on, there are some really volatile people who come to work with loaded guns, you know, brandishing them. In one case, one guy almost shot his - there's - this is crazy stuff. It's not every day, for sure, obviously. But I'm just wondering, do you think that your company was different than other gun-makers in that respect? Is there something that's just a little looser about people that do this?

BUSSE: I think that - you know, one of the points I make in the book is for a good part of the early portion of my career, the main business requirement to be a member of the shooting sports industry was that you really loved guns. It wasn't necessarily that you had an MBA. It wasn't necessarily that your CV or your resume was ultra impressive. It was that you really loved guns. And this attracted a cadre of people who unsurprisingly really loved guns and maybe weren't as buttoned down as some of the folks listening might suspect. The point in some of these stories - and you're right, they're crazy - but our country was largely transformed by normal people with normal problems who really loved guns. And that resulted in some pretty wild occurrences at a gun sales office.

DAVIES: So this company, Kimber, it grew because you made quality weapons. And you were really good at marketing them. You became something of a star known not just within the company but within the broader industry. Explain what you did that was different.

BUSSE: So I developed a direct sales and marketing effort. Most firearms are still produced by a manufacturer and sold to what are called two-step distributors, a large distributor who holds the product and then distributes it to sporting goods and firearms dealers across the country. The sales model that I developed and perfected sold guns directly to dealers, almost 3,000 of them across the nation. And I became recognized for that. I was nominated for many of the largest awards in the industry, including the Firearms Person of the Year Award (ph), which Charlton Heston won, Wayne LaPierre won, Bill Ruger won. And so yes, I found myself at a pretty young age in pretty rarefied air in the firearms industry.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Ryan Busse. His new book about his years in the American gun industry is called "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Ryan Busse. He spent many years in the American gun industry. He now is a critic of the National Rifle Association and the gun industry advocates. His new book about his time in the gun industry is called "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America."

A lot of people, you know, look at the National Rifle Association and gun makers and say, well, you know, you should be able to buy guns for hunting and maybe self-defense and target shooting. But that doesn't mean you should oppose any and all controls, and you shouldn't be marketing these high-powered military weapons. And you write that when you got into the business, that was the attitude of a lot of people in the business, right?

BUSSE: I think that's an important point to be made in the book is I believe - and I still believe - in Americans' rights to own guns. I own and use many guns. On the other hand, I also know that every right that we enjoy has to be balanced with the appropriate amount of responsibility. And I believe that over time, the story of the book is that that has gotten badly out of whack. But there was a time that you referred to, Dave, that the industry adhered to its own form of responsibility. It wasn't pressured legally, but it wouldn't even - the industry itself would not even allow the display of tactical items - tactical vests, tactical gloves, AR-15s, high-capacity anything - wouldn't allow it at its own trade shows. And that wasn't all that many years ago. Fifteen, 18 years ago, it wouldn't allow those things at its own trade shows. It wouldn't allow them to be used at promotional events or to be displayed. It wasn't that they were illegal or that they weren't sold. It just knew that responsible behavior dictated that you drew your own lines.

And much like our political sphere has broken down and all that was once adhered to and all the responsibilities that were once adhered to have been sort of crushed and shattered, that started in the firearms industry because I saw that responsibility being, you know, sort of dashed and done away with because it slowed down sales.

DAVIES: And a lot of the story is about the work of the National Rifle Association, which, as you note, when you were a kid was about, you know, gun safety seminars and magazines on hunting weapons, but became much more aggressive in promoting all kinds of programs to boost weapon sales and fight regulation. The interesting thing is that, you know, the gun industry, like, it has a trade association like many industries do. In the gun industry, it's the National Shooting Sports Foundation. How did the NRA, over time, become the driving force in gun industry policy and strategy?

BUSSE: Yeah. So I tell the story. My grandfather, who was a proud FDR Democrat, his favorite hat was the big black NRA gold-lettered, you know, hat, and he wore it to my rural high school football and basketball games. I was his treasured hat. But the NRA to him meant safety and camaraderie and responsibility. Then my father was an NRA member, and up until the point where he disavowed his membership, we received the NRA magazines in our home. And as you note, they were about, you know, interesting guns or shooting competitions or trap leagues or things of that sort, never about the impending doom of our republic or some, you know, conspiracy theory.

I think what happened is that the NRA stumbled upon - it's largely reported now that it began after Columbine, but it stumbled upon this idea that fear and conspiracy and hatred of the other could be used to drive and win political races. And accidentally, those are exactly the same things that in high doses drove unhealthy portions of firearm sales. And so over time, the NRA - it's often reported that the NRA is sort of a tool of firearms manufacturers. I found it to be exactly the opposite, and I think I present that in the book - that the NRA ran the show. They set the course for the industry, and everybody followed, and nobody questioned.

DAVIES: You know, one thing the NRA did was raise a ton of money and expect people in the industry to contribute money. And so when you're bringing in millions at a time, you've got a lot of clout to contribute to political campaigns or to use to - for lavish compensation for executives. It seems like they did a lot of both.

BUSSE: Yeah.

DAVIES: What were your political beliefs at the time?

BUSSE: I got into the industry - you know, I grew up in - on the farm and ranch. And I was sort of a thoughtless, conservative kind of go-along kid. I thought that, you know, everybody who grew up in farm and ranch country and then started working in the firearms industry was just conservative. And I bought the kind of conservative lines - Republican lines without really - without much thought. I tell a story in the book - when I first moved to rural Montana here, there was a truck I pulled up beside, and it and it said on the window - liberals - one a day, three in possession. It's a take off of a duck hunting limit about how many ducks you can shoot in a day. And I kind of laughed and gave the guy a thumbs-up. And I thought, well, that's what I'm supposed to be.

And over time, I figured out that those sort of thoughtless bumper sticker politics actually ran contrary to so many of the things that I actually held dear. In other words, I figured out that I had been suckered into voting against and empowering the politics of my own self-interests.

DAVIES: Now, you got involved in an industry battle over gun regulation in a really important way, and this was back - started back in the late '90s, when several U.S. cities were had the idea of suing gun manufacturers over their marketing of handguns at a time when shooting deaths were at epidemic proportions in a lot of cities. And then one gun makers, Smith & Wesson, struck a different course. You want to explain what they did?

BUSSE: Yeah. So during the, you know, late '90s during what everybody may remember as the tobacco settlement time, cities across the nation, largely municipalities, sued Big Tobacco, and they forced what we now live with are marketing concessions and all of the rules that now govern and the monetary concessions that Big Tobacco agreed to. That pattern was then applied by the same municipalities and kind of the same set of attorneys to try to force firearms manufacturers into the same sorts of settlements. Miami and Chicago, and just about every city had sued the largest firearms manufacturers and there was a high degree of consternation and worry in the firearms industry that the gun business, as everybody knew it, would probably perish to this legal effort.

One company, Smith & Wesson, who was headed up by a CEO by the name of Ed Schultz and they were actually owned by a British conglomerate named Tomkins, decided to negotiate with the Clinton administration sort of in secret and on its own. And then one day, to the surprise of everybody in the industry, including the NRA, Ed Schultz found himself on stage with President Clinton, where they announced that Smith & Wesson would agree to a long list of these sort of concessions. And that sent the entire industry into a very frantic tailspin.

DAVIES: Right. And the concessions were things like closing the gun show loophole - right? - developing smart weapons, which could be fired only by the owner, some other things like that. The NRA had no idea this was happening, neither did other companies. How did the industry and the NRA react to this?

BUSSE: Well, they reacted first - we all did - in total shock. But within about a day or two, the industry caught its footing, putting out sort of marching orders without putting out marching orders. You know, from there forward, the development of the sort of radicalized politics that we live with from the right now began its development course right then and there. And so the NRA put out the word that essentially the industry should do whatever it can to strangle Schultz and Smith & Wesson so that no other person, no other entity, no other firearms company joined up with this effort. And, you know, that was - I believe it was 2000.

I was very - you know, I was very naive in my politics, thoughtless. I liken myself to a young kid who signed up for war without even really knowing what the war was about. I was young and trying to make my mark, and I helped lead a boycott against Smith & Wesson, a very effective boycott, which forced Smith & Wesson to be sold eventually and Ed Schultz to be fired. Smith & Wesson sold for $15 million. And many years later, in 2016, the market cap of Smith & Wesson was $1.69 billion. So you could see the sort of transition that happened after that. But, yeah, that was a very formative time in my career.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you have a quote from Wayne LaPierre, who was the CEO of the National Rifle Association, after 9/11, him speaking to an audience in which he is sort of mocking the idea that, you know, we're now checking people at airports who are good, patriotic citizens. And he says, no, we don't want to risk offending an Islamic ex-con with two aliases, no jobs and no luggage paying cash on a one-way airline ticket whose shoes are packed with plastic explosives - some pretty hard-edged rhetoric coming out of the NRA then.

BUSSE: Well, that's what I began to notice is everything that happened was then spun in some fearful, conspiratorial, racial, just hate-filled way. Everything was spun that way. You know, I liken it in the book to this sort of political pressure cooker. The way that the NRA figured out that it could succeed is to get the country just one step below boiling and just try to hold it there and hold it there and hold it there. And if it ever cooled off, LaPierre had to say something like this or capitalize on some new horrific event or after Sandy Hook say some horrible thing or espouse some horrible policy - just keep the pressure as high as they could.

DAVIES: You know, you talk to people in your company. You were going to the conventions and trade shows and you talked to dealers all the time. I'm wondering, as the NRA rhetoric escalated, fear and hatred, you know, stoking weapon sales, what were you hearing from people in the business? Were they skeptical of this? Were they convinced? Did they see it as just good business?

BUSSE: So in another foreshadowing of our modern politics, you know, these were friends of mine and, frankly, smart people. I couldn't believe at first that they believed any of this sort of what I thought were crazy conspiracies, unhinged ideas. I thought, surely smart people don't believe these things. But I think there became - and I witnessed this sort of intertwining of political outcomes and monetary outcomes and fortunes. Really, it became advantageous to believe them and not doubt them. And so I saw folks who I at one time respected who seemed to cheer and even believe this, you know, that President Obama will rewrite the Constitution or the Obama administration is going to outlaw hunting ammunition. Or - I could go on and on and on with these conspiracy theories.

So it was tough for me over time to draw the line between what people really believed and what they doubted. And if that sounds a lot like the sort of election lies that we deal with now in the Trump years, it's because it's exactly like that. It's, you know, good smart people who are believing things that are clearly unhinged, and you just can't tell what's what. I experienced that 15, 18 years ago.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Ryan Busse. His new book about his years in the American gun industry is "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Ryan Busse. He has a new book that takes a hard and critical look at the American gun industry from the inside. Though today Busse is a critic of the National Rifle Association and an advocate for reform of gun laws, he spent more than 20 years working for a gun manufacturer, where his marketing strategies made him a darling of the industry. His new book is "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America."

There's another moment in the story that's kind of instructive, and that was, I - 1999, when I - the NRA convention is coming up and there's going to be a big gun show. And then the Columbine massacre occurs in Colorado. Just share with us what that was like for you and how the industry reacted.

BUSSE: Yeah, that was the - obviously, the first large mass school shooting in our country. And as it so happened, it happened just south of Denver, and the large NRA convention was set to happen in Denver just about 10 days later. And it sent a shock through the entire industry. And the NRA ended up canceling the largest portion of their convention that year, but they held the business meetings. And there were large protests in Denver against the business meetings.

And the NRA ended up in what is now a rather infamous approach, where they ended up doubling down instead of giving in. And I believe the politics of, you know, never give an inch, never acknowledge any improvement or work towards any - you know, improving policy really started then.

DAVIES: Right. And when you say doubling down, I mean, one of the things that could have happened was maybe revisiting the way gun shows are done and people buy weapons, you know, without background checks.

BUSSE: Yeah.

DAVIES: Rather than compromise, rather than undertake that, what did they do?

BUSSE: They decided to oppose any strengthening or any closing of the gun show loophole. And for - I know that's a phrase that a lot of listeners hear all the time. And the gun show loophole simply means that at gun shows or through private sales, gun sales can happen without a federally mandated background check if they happen not through a federally licensed dealer. So an amateur, you know, gun trader, somebody who sells a few guns a year, can go to a gun show and sell a gun literally to whoever they want without a background check. And that probably should have been closed legislatively after Columbine, but the NRA decided to fight that, despite the horror of that Columbine shooting.

DAVIES: Were any of the weapons used in Columbine purchased at gun shows?

BUSSE: Yes. The - and that was a direct link to several of the guns. I believe two or three of the guns that were used in Columbine were purchased at a gun show just on the north end of Denver. And so it was really an opportune time to shut that loophole. And still, today, 20 - at more than 20 years later, we have not shut that loophole.

DAVIES: The other thing that's striking about this moment is at a time when, you know, the nation was horrified at what these high-powered weapons could do and you might expect some kind of retraction in the industry, some shrinkage of sales, in fact, that's not what happened. It actually ended up boosting gun sales. How did that happen? Why did that occur?

BUSSE: Well, that started a very vicious cycle for the rest of my career, where two things generated incredible booms in the gun business. The first one was typically after a mass shooting, within - usually within hours after a mass shooting. Then there would be discussions of legislative fixes - potential legislative fixes. And that sort of fear, which the NRA figured out how to tap into, could be used to both drive voters to the polls and accidentally, I believe, at first, it also drove gun sales like nobody ever imagined. So if you overlay gun sales over the last 20 years with mass shootings, soon after each mass shooting - until just the last couple of years, which I get to in the book - but after each mass shooting, there would be incredible gun booms.

The other thing that would drive gun sales is when any Democrat was elected - certainly elected as president - because again, the same fear was used - that guns would be banned or that there would be legislative activity that would make it more difficult to get guns. So everybody would rush out and buy them after these events.

DAVIES: I suppose we should note that your company, for most of its existence, tried not to make cheap handguns that turned up at crime scenes and didn't get into assault weapons used. You tried to develop high-end, expensive weapons. But still, you were part of the trade. You were part of the business.

You write about how another thing that boosted gun sales over this period was that concealed carry statutes were passed in a lot of states. It was not legal for a long time for you to walk around with a weapon concealed. That now is the case in most places, although there's a case before the Supreme Court testing New York's law restricting that. But that drove a lot of handgun sales. And there was the development of guns with polymer frames, other things that made for cheaper weapons. That boosted sales.

The other thing that was really interesting that you write about was the embrace of assault weapons or assault-style weapons. You know, you - for a long time, through the '90s, you said those weapons, while they were made and sold to the military and law enforcement, you know, the industry didn't like peddling them to individual gun owners. How did that change?

BUSSE: That changed really between 2003 or '04 and about 2007. One notable legal thing that changed in that same time frame was the passage of PLCAA, which is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which removed many liability. It basically removed the threat of those suits that we talked about from applying to firearms companies. Additionally, the Assault Weapons Ban, which was in place from 1994 to 2004 - George Bush didn't renew that in 2004. And I think it's important for people to know that the AR-15 itself was never technically banned by the Assault Weapons Ban. You could still buy all the AR-15s you wanted to.

An assault weapon, by definition, was a gun, like an AR-15 or several other models that are similar to that, with important add-on features - that's how the gun was defined as an assault weapon - and a high-capacity magazine, which at that point meant any magazine over 10 rounds.

In 2004 and 2005, the liability was removed so that marketing practices could change and assault weapons could be developed with all of these add-on features. Short ones, long ones, heavy ones, light ones - you know, all the sort of configurations of AR-15s that we see now built by more than 500 companies. That all exploded between 2004 and about 2007.

DAVIES: Right. This was at a time when, of course, there was the invasion of Iraq so that there were a lot more - you know, there were a lot of images of American troops in battle in Afghanistan and in Iraq using these weapon. And there became to be this whole culture around this. You call it tactical culture. You want to describe some of its attributes?

BUSSE: Yeah, I witnessed at the same time as those legal changes happened, we had two wars going on. And the NRA, again, stumbled on to this marketing idea that patriotism and sort of manhood and this sort of faux machismo that we see now could be wrapped around the weapons of war, meaning AR-15s, and they could become a symbol of all this.

And so the sort of frightening vigilante activity that we see now - we have seen with Kyle Rittenhouse or the various other incidents across the country - really got its start then. And it involves, you know, sort of pinches of supposed bravery and patriotism and religious devotion. And of course, the AR-15 became the symbol for it all, which is why on January 6, you saw a couple different types of flags, Trump and American flags, but the other type of flag you saw was the come-and-take-it flag with an AR-15 on the flag. And you saw people with AR-15s on their logo gear because the AR-15 was developed, then, as this sort of symbol of a certain brand of patriotism.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Ryan Busse. His book about his years in the American gun industry is "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Ryan Busse. He spent many years in the American gun industry. His new book is "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America."

You were disillusioned with the message of the industry for a long time. Your wife, Sara, gave you plenty of earsful about her own feelings. And there came a point when you basically kind of did what you wanted to do in terms of your public posture criticizing policies. You even helped a journalist. Do you want to just describe some of the things you'd done, that you did to, in effect, undermine the strategies of the industry?

BUSSE: I'm a stubborn guy, and I believed that I could fight for the sort of industry that I first got into. I didn't know why I had to give up. You know, I use the term in the book couch commando because that's what a lot of people in the industry pejoratively refer to these folks who you now see armed up at Michigan Capitols and Kentucky Capitols and everywhere else. They called them couch commandos. I didn't see why I or anybody else had to give up my vision of the industry to that. So I stayed in, and I fought every little way I could. But again, I had a knife's edge. I couldn't go too far, or I would be like Ed Shultz at Smith & Wesson. I would be fired and excommunicated.

But I did find ways. I involved myself in top-tier Senate races. I was a go-between between the NRA and senators on those races. I think I fought for what I believe are the right candidates. And Jon Tester, senator from Montana, a dear friend, is still in office, thank goodness, I hope somewhat to my efforts. And I also looked for ways to help journalists. I helped Elliott Woods, who wrote a very hard-hitting and, I think, excellent New Republic piece entitled "Fear: The American Terror Machine" (ph). I helped get him inside the SHOT Show. And I didn't feed him anything. I knew that Elliott was a good enough journalist that he would write about the things he saw, and he did see things like a Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia hat that he saw at one of the SHOT Show events, which is - you know, Dylann Roof, the mass murderer for the Emanuel Methodist Church in South Carolina, wore a Rhodesian national flag, so you can see the sort of white nationalism that was there.

DAVIES: You helped this journalist get into the SHOT Show. You want to explain what the SHOT Show is?

BUSSE: Yeah. The SHOT Show is the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show, or SHOT Show. It's one of the largest trade shows on the planet, and it's the annual industry trade show in which all industry members - firearms manufacturers, ammunition manufacturers, any accessory and then multiple dozens, if not hundreds, of international arms manufacturers - display. And it's typically in Las Vegas. It was in Las Vegas that year.

DAVIES: You know, you're out here publicly campaigning for Democrats, so that's heresy. When this article came out in the New Republic that Elliott Woods wrote, people suspected you might have gotten him into the show. It's not open to the public. What did people say to you? What did you say for yourself?

BUSSE: As I became more and more frustrated - and you mentioned my wife, Sara, who is a saint, by the way; she's the real hero of the book - but every time something horrific happened, it was very difficult. I have two boys now. I had two young boys then. When Parkland happened, it was just an incredibly tenuous time. When Sandy Hook happened, our boys were almost exactly that same age. It was just horrific to think about it. And so I became more disillusioned and more troubled, and it just became this sort of perilous existence that was tough. It was much tougher. And so people - I couldn't hold my tongue. I - that knife's edge was tougher to walk on. And so people did begin - even friends of mine or folks who may have voted for me in those award ceremonies, they began to look askance at me as though I was not to be trusted.

DAVIES: So you're out now. You're a consultant to progressive groups like Gabby Giffords' organization. Looking at this now, do you think you were deluded in thinking that you could stay in the industry and make progress?

BUSSE: I think I did my best to try to change the things I can change. If I was deluded at all - or something I didn't see coming, perhaps, is the degree to which the industry grew and changed into this behemoth. I didn't see the unbelievably huge ballooning of guns and the gun industry's importance in politics. When I started, really, it was very much like a small cottage industry. Everybody knew everybody. The companies were pretty small. But it - much like many other facets of America, it grew into something so large that I was deluding myself to think that I could have measurable impact on something that had grown that large and powerful.

DAVIES: You know, the NRA was a juggernaut for a lot of the years that you were in the business. I mean, they had a fortune, spent a fortune on political races, had enormous influence through their members in blocking any kind of gun regulation. The organization today is kind of a mess, right? I mean, there have been all these investigations into financial misconduct and self-dealing, the suit from the New York Attorney General's Office, they went to bankruptcy court, tried to move to Texas, I believe the judge did not grant that. What's the state of the NRA today? Where do you think it's headed?

BUSSE: Well, I think the NRA as an organization, at least currently, is certainly weakened. Your description is apt. The thing that I believe, again, as a foreshadowing of modern politics, much like President Trump who lost an election, you could say, well, Trump is gone. He's no longer in office. Isn't he weakened? Well, Trump has gone, but Trumpism certainly is not gone. And I think NRA is exactly the same way. NRA is not as its high point with regards to membership or fundraising or organizational health, that's for sure. But the sort of politics and NRA-ism that has been released across the country has not gone anywhere. And I liken it somewhat to a brush fire that is now raging across the country. It's dry and it's windy and it's still burning things. So I don't know that the NRA is gone or that it will be gone, but even weakened, the things that it has unleashed are certainly not weakened.

DAVIES: Has this experience changed the place of guns in your own life at all?

BUSSE: No. My family - you know, my boys, who are now 13 and 16, literally do not understand how someone like us can be called anti-gun. They don't understand how their dad can be called anti-gun. We hunt. We hunted a couple weeks ago. We own guns. We shoot every chance we can. It really hasn't changed how we view guns. It has changed how my family and I view people whose entire existence, whose religion, is almost around these guns, especially around assault rifles. And at one time - you know, the industry has always told all of us that we're in it - we're all in it together. We're all the same. There is no difference between somebody who uses a gun for hunting and some guy who marches down to the Capitol and threatens lawmakers with his AR-15. They're all the same. I never felt that way. My boys never felt that way. And I guess if it's changed us, it's definitely enforced the fact that we are gun owners, but we're not those kind of gun owners.

DAVIES: Well, Ryan Busse, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BUSSE: Thank you, Dave. It was an honor.

DAVIES: Ryan Busse's book about his years in the American gun industry is "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about experiences in Dostoyevsky's life that led to his classic novel "Crime And Punishment." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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