In 1995 Ryan Busse began his firearms business career with a small struggling company and no industry influence. Over the next decade, he helped build that company into a powerful player in the industry, winning awards for his business achievements while fighting back against the industry’s slide towards extremism. Although his company was headquartered on the East Coast, Ryan headed up the sales operations from his base in Kalispell, and Montana politics often overlapped with his work. By 2012, he was seizing every opportunity he could find to fight for the things and people he believed in, especially in his home state. This excerpt from “Gunfight” details the story of one of those battles. It also foreshadows the political tools that were being developed by the NRA and that would one day be deployed by the Republican Party across the nation.
The Montana Book Festival, Arts Missoula and Whitefish Review present author Ryan Busse and former Gov. Steve Bullock in conversation during a virtual event on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. Registration is required.
After the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, the reaction from the Obama administration mirrored the mood of the general public. Something had to be done, and that something did not include armed amateurs inside schools. Vice President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran with a history of navigating complicated legislative deals, was entrusted with the effort to improve gun-safety laws. The future president sought consensus and even brought the National Rifle Association to the White House to discuss options. “There has got to be some common ground, to not solve every problem but diminish the probability” of mass shootings, Biden said. “That’s what this is all about.”
In a foreboding sign, the meetings between Biden and the NRA broke down, and NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre issued an angry statement which made it clear that his organization was not interested in negotiations with Democrats, even with seasoned deal makers such as Biden. “We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen,” LaPierre said, just minutes after he left the contentious meeting at the White House.
As the vice president searched for possible legislative solutions, the NRA’s withdrawal from negotiations meant that the path for bold action narrowed, leaving only one small area of agreement. In a last-ditch effort to do something, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania crafted an amendment to strengthen background checks on private gun purchases. Their modest proposal was essentially an attempt to close the gun-show loophole, which was still open even fourteen years after Columbine.
Initially, we anticipated bipartisan agreement, and it looked like the amendment might just pass. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represented all industry companies, first signaled that it would be for the legislation. Notably, despite sending signals of support, the organization left its options open while it waited for approval from the NRA, also rumored to be considering support. But within days, Chris Cox, the head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, realized there was political opportunity in the wind, and he announced to all US senators that the NRA had decided to score the vote, even with a Republican as a cosponsor. In other words, any senators who cared about their NRA rating and relied on the organization’s support had better damn well vote no. Scoring was a maneuver to ensure that any Democrat who voted for the amendment would bear the permanent record and the political repercussions. It also meant that virtually no Republicans (except Pat Toomey) could vote for the bill, especially if they needed their A+ ratings to win their next elections.
The NRA had succeeded yet again in converting an opportunity to make policy improvements into just another temperature increase for the national pressure cooker. Behind the scenes, most of us in the industry had no problem with the proposal. In fact, many executives strongly supported the initial NSSF openness, believing that expanding background checks was a good idea, if for no other reason than it reduced public relations risks and funneled all sales through established retailers.
I took this opportunity to try and hold support for the amendment, often reminding other executives that the policy would have nothing but good impacts on the industry. I knew that we could not go on just saying no to everything, and I kept thinking about the horror of those Newtown parents. I kept thinking about my own boys.
Initially, many gun-business leaders I spoke with shook their heads in agreement. Of course, they all knew how bad it looked to allow mentally deranged people like Adam Lanza to legally buy guns without a check, and many industry insiders feared a subsequent high-profile mass shooting might result in far stricter policy solutions that would actually hurt sales. They also all understood that only a tiny percentage of sales would have been affected by the background-check bill, meaning that the Manchin-Toomey amendment would have almost no impact on the day-to-day business of any gun company. But the NRA’s decision to ratchet up the political heat resulted in quick evaporation of the NSSF’s initial support. Any thought that the NRA was not completely in charge disappeared too. Within days, the entire industry got in line behind Cox and LaPierre. Like a loyal lieutenant trying to stay in the good graces of a powerful general, the NSSF even issued emails and press releases cheering the NRA’s efforts to kill the amendment. I could see that when the vote actually happened, Manchin-Toomey would be doomed.
A few days before the vote, I found the political leader I had befriended in the back of the room at a Montana Democratic Party fundraiser. Senator Jon Tester, still new to his second term, handed me a drink and asked how I thought he should vote. “I think the policy is good, Senator,” I told him. “Even the NRA has a history of being in favor of better background checks. So from a policy standpoint, you ought to vote for it.” Tester cocked his head, as he often did when listening carefully, and I continued. “But it’s not going to pass. You and I both know that.”
“They’re scoring it.”
“So I guess I’m advising you to vote against it,” I said, with hesitation. “They’re just going to use it to attack you when you run again.”
This set him off. I knew he wasn’t angry with me, but he gritted his teeth and raised his voice. “You telling me those NRA bastards will kill this bill? It’s a pro-gun bill, for God’s sake. Who wants the ‘bad guys’ to have guns?”
“This ain’t about good policy for them,” I replied, after telling him he was right. “It’s about laying a political trap for—”
“People like me.”
“People like you.”
Tester took a drink and held the whiskey in his mouth for a long time. He swallowed and then leaned close to me as he spoke. “Well, this ain’t about me, goddamnit. I met with those parents. It was as hard as anything I have ever done.” Clearly, Tester was no longer considering my political coaching; this was personal for him. “I’m a parent and a granddad, and no one should have to endure what those people in Connecticut are going through.” He was animated now, his emotions taking over, and he poked me on the shoulder. “You can tell those NRA bastards that it’s the right thing to do, and by God, it’s about time someone in this country did the right thing.”
Despite knowing the amendment would fail, Tester carried through with his promise to do the right thing. This was not the first time I had seen him cast a vote on principle, but given that the NRA was sure to use this against him, I was even more impressed. Tester voted yes because of his basic decency and because he made a commitment to those grieving parents. I knew then that our country needed a lot more of that.
The Manchin–Toomey amendment failed on April 17, 2013, by a margin of 46‒54: six votes shy of the sixty votes needed to pass. Senators John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Ron Kirk of Illinois joined Toomey as the only Republicans who voted in support. And five Democrats — including Montana’s other senator, Max Baucus — voted against it.7
As Cox and pro-NRA senators ensured the defeat of the legislation, gun companies like Kimber were in the middle of figuring out how to handle all the growth. During the first four months of 2013, gun sales continued to skyrocket, increasing nearly two million units over the same period a year before. AR-15 rifles and “Tupperware” guns made up most of the sales, but everything that went bang sold too, including every gun model that Kimber made.
Of course, the politics meant only more sales and more power for the NRA, which never forgave Tester for his vote. They did not meet with grieving parents or make commitments to improving policy. No, they employed multimillion-dollar marketing firms that got paid to convert tragedies like Sandy Hook into slogans: opportunities to score points and build power. They wore tailored suits and were already preparing for the next NRA convention in Houston. But this time they weren’t just after Tester. They were after me too.
Excerpted from GUNFIGHT: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America, by Ryan Busse. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. This excerpt may not be republished without permission of PublicAffairs.
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