Opinion

Audio Astra: A Kansas native and his messy road map for compromise on guns

December 3, 2021 3:33 am

Kansas native Ryan Busse’s new book, “Gunfight,” provides a scathing behind-the-curtain view of the gun industry, writes Eric Thomas. (Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Former Gun Industry Insider On His Battle Against the NRA

Fresh Air, Nov. 22, 2021

Gunfight: My Battle against the Industry that Radicalized America

Audiobook written and read by Ryan Busse

Occasionally, an insider from a secretive corner of the world comes clean, revealing secrets from a tobacco company, a social media giant or a corrupt corner of government. In hearing the stories of these repentant insiders, I sometimes wonder how they could be so aware now of the sins of their past lives, but previously so supportive of what they now expose and criticize.

So it is with “Gunfight,” the new book by Kansas native Ryan Busse.

The book, promoted recently on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” provides a scathing and behind-the-curtain view of the gun industry that should make even the most pro-gun American flinch. The reality backstage at NRA and firearms companies is worse, Busse reveals, than we imagined.

Busse’s access takes us into the bowels of the gun industry. The office stories from his time at the gunmaker Kimber America include Busse’s boss interviewing him for the job at a strip club, where he frequently holds meetings. During another work day, a co-worker accidentally discharges a gun, which so frightens another co-worker that he escapes the office through a window. The company’s accountant embezzles millions in a scheme that funded Hollywood movie productions and supported mistresses. In the ultimate irony, his company headquarters installs bulletproof glass to protect some employees but not others.

However, the gun industry Busse describes has a Machiavellian and effective edge too. Gunmakers innovate polymer-based guns that bring greater profits. The NRA and gun advocates rebrand the AR-15 from an assault rifle to “America’s Rifle.” And Busse’s own company thrives in a market that encourages concealed carry of pistols. The tactics add up to a gun industry that didn’t just grow sales, it multiplies them and then multiplies them again.

In almost every chapter, Busse connects the NRA’s political tactics in advocating for guns to President Donald Trump’s cultivation of his mob of violent followers. Busse writes about how the Republican party previously stood for country club decency. Similarly, he traces the NRA’s evolution from a genteel group of sportsmen dedicated to gun craftmanship and safety to an always simmering religious posse devoted to openly carrying deadly assault rifles and bullying his own son. The Trump ascendancy owes its playbook to the NRA, he says.

“Gunfight” is the new book by Ryan Busse. (PublicAffairs )

Busse prides himself on his small-town Kansas values. He grew up a “ranch kid” in western Kansas, near the Colorado and Nebraska borders. There, his father taught him the importance of gun safety as the family hunted for its food. He recalls how one moment of unhinged gun violence in his family scarred those he loved.

Busse’s political journey started in Kansas, too. In his youth, he reflexively agreed with liberal-bashing bumper stickers. From there, he heightened his allegiance to the NRA and conservative politics, stomaching racist jokes and threats against Democrats.

How does that man become a literary whistleblower against the gun industry?

First of all, Busse humbly indicts himself, admitting that he could have done more and could have done it sooner to stand up to dangerous lies and political tactics endorsed by the NRA. He even tallies the years — a breathtaking 16 years — that he remained in a job that he often saw as repugnant. He describes himself as flawed while also enumerating the faults of the NRA, gun industry and his own company.

Indeed, the central tension of the book might be whether or not he should have stepped out sooner and how he could have resigned from the company. This kind of honesty is vital because it’s not much fun to spend a few hundred pages with an unrepentant narrator dismantling his previous coworkers without reflecting on his own sins.

In this way, the interview and audiobook are satisfying: Busse’s honesty makes him sympathetic, while also revealing his past actions as flawed.

However, such a mercurial shift from gun lobby to writing a book like this creates blind spots for Busse. The audiobook describes the work of the NRA and gun industry to punish Smith and Wesson for the company’s willingness to negotiate with President Bill Clinton. Busse was a key person in organizing a boycott that eventually brought down the company’s CEO and shackled further reforms. Busse likens his allegiance and the loyalty of thousands of NRA members to soldiers being called to battle.

To my mind, the wartime comparison seems false, especially in the early years of his work. In war, soldiers are duty bound to serve others. The NRA is self-serving, from its CEO’s expensive suits to its drive for continually increasing gun sales.

The correct metaphor here seems less about war and more about bullying. The NRA has tilted the scales so much that our national debate about guns is not war. It’s too asymmetric. Just like the Trump administration that would follow, bullying allowed the NRA to repeatedly defeat its opposition. Busse describes how directives from the NRA in the 1990s were never official or coordinated enough to prove as antitrust in court.

This informal but authoritarian influence was yet another lesson the Trump White House took from the gun industry as Trump threatened and disposed of people without official documents to prove wrongdoing.

The enduring legacy of the book should be a recognition that the NRA has systematically and deeply programmed in us a reflex to demonize one another. Their industry’s profits, Busse explains, rely on a country divided by race and conflicting Second Amendment views.

In hearing Busse, we meet a valuable guide to today’s culture. He explains how he fails to fit into the political binaries of America: To this day, he defends the right to own guns, but wonders why the industry doesn’t seek to design safer ones. He speaks out against drilling on public lands, but he acknowledges that he helped create a gun-crazed, racist mob that elected president Trump. These contradictions defy conventional red vs. blue categories.

Busse’s nonbinary political position elevates the book and interview as rare and valuable in today’s America.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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