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Former gun industry exec speaks out against NRA's role in mass shootings


In Houston, Texas today, the National Rifle Association is holding its annual conference just days after the deadly school shooting a few dozen miles west in Uvalde. A little later in the program, we're going to hear from our reporter who is there. But first, we're going to hear from someone who spent a lot of time at conventions like this during his two decades as a senior executive in the firearm industry - that is, until he quit and became an advocate for stricter gun laws and an outspoken critic of the NRA.

Ryan Busse is now a senior adviser at Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she survived a gun attack. In a recent essay, he argues that this wave of mass shootings is the predictable consequence of the gun industry's collective decision to embrace profit and right-wing political extremism over all other considerations. And Ryan Busse is with us now to tell us more about his thoughts. Ryan Busse, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

RYAN BUSSE: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So, as we mentioned, you used to work as a high-level executive in the firearms industry. You helped build one of the best-known gun brands, Kimber. But at a certain point in your career, something shifted for you. Can you take us back to that time? Did you have like, a eureka moment, or did it happen slowly? How did it happen for you?

BUSSE: Well, looking back at it, it feels like a moment. I have a feeling it was a little more gradual, but essentially, I came to understand, through environmental advocacy that I was doing, that the way the NRA had tapped into these sort of cultural touchstones like I had been raised with - I was raised on a ranch and loved to hunt and shoot with my family and my dad, still love to do that with my boys - but it tapped into that sort of visceral connection to that culture and then twisted it in ways and inserted fear.

When I stood up and spoke against a Republican administration on environmental topics, and then I was viciously attacked by the same industry who said it was for hunters, said it was for the culture that I cared about. You know, I had bought that line, and I realized that I had criticized the wrong party, and that it wasn't about any of that. It was just about party and power and money. And that was in the early 2000s. And I spent the remainder of my time in the industry fighting against it while trying to hold a line on the sort of firearms ownership and culture that I believed in.

MARTIN: Well, you make the point in recent essays that you've written for The Bulwark and for The Guardian that your views about this were actually norms until about 15 years ago. I mean, you give the example that that one of those unbreakable rules imposed on all gun companies until only about 15 years ago was that tactical gear of any sort, like the kind worn by the Buffalo mass murderer, couldn't be displayed or advertised in the main sections of these trade shows. You said that there was no advertising meant to incite irresponsible behavior. There was no partisanship between firearms and right-wing political movements. When did that change and why?

BUSSE: It happened because the NRA figured out that radicalization, hate, fear, racism - those things could gin up a populace to vote in irrational ways. If you could keep - I like to say that they could keep this group of, you know, fervent NRA fans just in the populist, just one degree below boiling. And then they were volatile. They could get them to vote in very irrational ways. Well, it turned out that those same exact things made people buy guns and still - and make people buy guns. And when you mix in, you know, classically authoritarian things, militarism, so this tactical gear, AR-15, which were persona non grata in the industry up until about 2006 or '7, you mix all that in, and you start to have an even more volatile situation. And I'm worried now that it's gotten to the point where it threatens our democracy, but the spillover effects darn sure threaten our kids in schools.

MARTIN: Can you talk a bit more about how the NRA used fear as a sales strategy?

BUSSE: You know, I assert in my book that the NRA and firearms politics are at the very center, are the thing, the place where our national division has been fomented, started, farmed, whatever, and then hand it off to the right. And it's all based on fear. And you're going to see it classically at the NRA convention. You're going to hear people say, see, these people are going to use the death of these kids to come get our freedoms, to come get our rights. And you see how it's framed into this fear of loss. Something horrible is framed into fear of loss. So the NRA perfected that - started to perfect it 20 years ago after Columbine. They made the decision there, but then they really began perfecting it as President Obama began leading in the polls in 2007.

MARTIN: You write in your essay for The Bulwark - your concluding line is very provocative and very disturbing. You say, sadly, there is nothing broken about what we're experiencing. The system is working exactly as intended, which is - it's a horrifying thought. But I have to say that it's not a secret that racists have long wanted to start a race war. I mean, Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof - name any of the kind of white supremacist killers who have, you know, massacred people in recent years who have expressed specific desire to start a race war. But Black and brown people aren't the only people dying.

I mean, let's think about the most lethal mass shooting in our country's history to this point, in Las Vegas. The victims were at a country music concert - right? - in Las Vegas, you know, and overwhelmingly white, not exclusively. And we still don't know the exact motivation of the shooter in that case. But I guess my point here is is that while we know that white racists would like to start a race war, a lot of other people are getting killed besides their intended targets. And I just have to ask, doesn't anybody in the firearms industry leadership realize that? I mean, is there a point at which they're afraid for their own kids?

BUSSE: Yeah. There are times when people are afraid for their own kids. I saw it. I experienced it. There are good people inside the firearms industry, but the way it's rationalized, it's much like pollutants, right? If you work in a factory, and there's the river running by the factory, and you dump the pollutants in, you can just kind of look away and say, well, that's for somebody else to deal with downstream. And I think that's really how it happens.

One thing that I really think is important for listeners to understand is that the Trump administration and Donald Trump himself kind of viscerally knew that racism, angst, turmoil, conspiracy, hatred, all those things were good for him because they created such a fearful, tumultuous populace that they made rush out and vote for him when they might not otherwise.

And the other byproduct of that is the very highest gun sales in America ever correspond perfectly with the most tumultuous time any of us have experienced in our lives - the time from January 1, 2020, to January 7, 2021, that 12-month period - almost everything you can imagine, which I can - it seems like a million years ago, and it seems like yesterday. But COVID, shutdowns, George Floyd, protests, Black Lives Matter, counter-protest, National Guard killing people - right? - I mean, think of all we went through. Well, that corresponds perfectly with the highest gun sales in America.

And so there is this measure of understanding that ginning up the public produces gun sales. Place yourself in the position of an African American family in Buffalo right now, or frankly, way too many other cities. Are you more or less likely to go purchase a firearm and protect yourself after what happened there? Sadly, I'm pretty sure it's more likely because you're frightened, and I wouldn't blame you.

MARTIN: The data bears out what you hypothesized here. It is a fact, according to the best data we have, that white males are still the group most likely to own guns. But the increase in gun sales - right? - from a demographic perspective, has been among African Americans and women. And also, those groups have been somewhat, you know, targeted - especially women, especially white women, I would have to say - by the gun industry. You see some of their more high-profile spokespersons at the current moment are white women. Do you think - obviously, you're working in this space to try to create a different reality for Americans, but is there anything that you think could put that genie back in the bottle?

I mean, there are already more guns circulating in the United States than there are people in the United States, which says, obviously, that some people own multiple weapons. And for some people who think, well, you know, so what? That's - it's a hobby. You know, a lot of people own more than one pair of shoes, you know - but the level of violence that we have in this country, particularly compared to peer industrial nations, you can't argue that. Is there anything that you think would cause people to say, this is just unacceptable, and perhaps take different steps?

BUSSE: Well, yeah. There have been a few things, I think, two things of note. First, all of the turmoil I discuss - and, you know, my book opens with my own son being threatened by an armed, you know, air quotes here, "Second Amendment patriot" as we were protesting with families at a Black Lives Matter rally. Municipalities all across our country saw this armed intimidation over the last two years. We had a January 6 insurrection, where people marched with two types of flags, the Trump and political flags - but the other type, come and take a AR-15 gun flags, right? Guns were at the very center, the very center of that insurrection. And that has responsible gun owners freaked out, thankfully. I know because thousands of them are reaching out to me after they've read my book. So that's one thing.

The other thing are obviously these horrific, horrific events in Buffalo and Uvalde, and I do sense a shift. I hope that responsible gun owners will stand up and do this. But I believe that change is going to come when the vast majority of gun owners, who are law-abiding, just like you mentioned, they need to stand up and say, enough's enough. This radicalization - as I call them in the book, couch commandos, these people do not speak for us. This glorification of militarized violence, this faux patriotism, this you can only be a man - there's an actual man card campaign. You purchase an AR-15 and get your man card. That was the advertising campaign that led to the sale of the Sandy Hook rifle and the exact same rifle that was used in the Buffalo shooting.

Like, these advertising campaigns that are being propagated by the firearms industry are egregiously, egregiously irresponsible. And I think we simply have to figure out a way, in a complex democracy, to figure out how to balance freedoms, which we all love - all of us want our freedoms. But none of them will be maintained, nothing will be maintained if we cannot balance them with responsibility. And that balance is just way, way out of whack.

MARTIN: That's Ryan Busse. He's a former executive in the firearms industry. He's the author of "Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America." And he's been writing essays, which you can read in The Bulwark and The Guardian. Ryan Busse, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us.

BUSSE: It was an honor to be on with you today. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.