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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Gun-industry heretic details how firearm politics poisoned all politics

Tuesday morning, Ryan Busse and I talked about his new book, “Gunfight,” which details his evolution from gun salesman to gun-industry heretic and which blasts the NRA for poisoning our politics.

Tuesday afternoon came the latest school shooting: four dead and seven injured at a high school in Michigan.

It was, as they say, a little too on the nose – an uncomfortably perfect illustration of one of the central themes of Busse’s book.

He charts the evolution of our national response to school shootings. Not all that long ago, a particular cycle would play out after a mass shooting: People would be heartbroken and devastated. Calls for change would be raised. Legislation might be proposed. The gun lobby would bunker down – recall Wayne LaPierre’s deranged “good guy with a gun” speech mere days after Sandy Hook – and its bought-and-paid-for politicians would heel.

And gun sales would go through the roof.

For a time, there was nothing like a school shooting to goose gun sales. In “Gunfight,” Busse notes the occasion when a colleague said – at a moment when sales were flagging – that what was needed was a “ really good back-to-school sale.”

However, as “Gunfight” demonstrates and as last week’s ho-hum school shooting confirms, we’ve moved past that now. We’ve adjusted to the mass murder of children in schools now, as if it’s just the acceptable cost of being American.

Though the ability of any single massacre to move people to action has waned, the scorched-earth, with-us-or-against-us, take-no-prisoners politics that Busse watched take over the gun industry has broadened far beyond any single incident and into broader culture-war politics.

A demonized Democrat in the White House – a “gun-grabber” – does the trick.

“It’s not an accident that the most hateful, tumultuous period of either of our lives corresponds exactly with the highest gun-sale rates this country has ever seen, by a huge margin,” Busse said.

Busse lives in Kalispell, where he worked for many years for Kimber, a small gun maker with a reputation for high quality. He grew up in rural Kansas, where he read his dad’s issues of the NRA’s “American Rifleman” and where political conservatism was simply “in the water.” He carried those views into adulthood.

In his book, he tells two parallel stories. One focuses on his growing disenchantment with gun politics, his growing conflicts with those in his industry and the NRA, and his eventual departure from the business.

The other tracks our national evolution on gun politics, from the reaction when President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot in 1981, through the school shooting era, to the current state of politicized inaction.

It’s almost shocking to revisit the politics around gun safety that existed after Reagan was shot. Recall that the big push for gun-safety laws then came from a campaign led by Brady’s wife, Sarah, and that the Brady Bill, which implemented background checks for firearms purchases, was passed with bipartisan support, even in the face of NRA opposition.

Recall that not long after that, the assault-weapons ban passed – and two former GOP presidents, Gerald Ford and Reagan, urged its passage in a letter to senators calling the legislation “an urgent matter of public safety.”

“Could you imagine a Republican president lobbying the Senate to pass gun-safety legislation?” Busse asked. “Could you imagine it?”

You could not.

Busse’s politics evolved leftward, starting with his dawning interest in advocating for conservation issues. This opened a crack between him and all of those around him; he became a public figure when he spoke out against proposals to open the Badger Two Medicine wilderness to oil and gas exploration.

That was his introduction to the vicious backlash that became a hallmark of the gun industry and the strength of the marriage between the gun industry and GOP politics, even in matters that seemingly worked against the interests of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

After lots of subsequent conflict with key people in the industry – all vividly told in the book – Busse realized his conscience wouldn’t let him stay in the business.

He remains a gun owner and hunter.

“I was elk hunting two days ago. Bird hunting yesterday,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve changed at all in the ways I view and use guns. … I think the NRA has radicalized a certain portion of gun owners and tried to use guns as a political cudgel.”

Busse’s book also tracks the rise of the assault rifle from a niche market to “America’s Rifle.” This has led to a development he deplores – the rise of the “couch commando,” the AR-15 hobbyist who imagines himself a defender of a certain narrow view of the nation, ready to go out and “Kyle Rittenhouse it.”

“They’re wanna-be Civil War re-enactors, except they want the Civil War to be now,” he said.

Several of them confronted one of Busse’s children crudely and aggressively at a BLM demonstration in Kalispell. That was a breaking point for him, and one of the reasons he wrote the book.

“Gunfight” is very good, but it’s also discouraging. Busse calls on people to stop letting extreme bully politics control the issue and raise their voices in favor of sane gun safety, but it’s hard to see any pathway forward in the current system.

He finds reason for hope in the response to the book.

“I anticipated a lot of the negative trolling, ugliness and calling for beheading that the industry has done for so long,” he said. “Frankly, I got very little of that. Much less. Much less than I anticipated.”

Instead, he’s gotten a lot of feedback from people like him – gun owners who want to break from the pack.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting a right as powerful as the Second Amendment right to be balanced with decency and responsibility,” he said.

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