On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 last month, J.D. Vance tweeted a photo of himself holding his young son amidst tables of guns.  He captioned it, “Took the toddler to a gun show this morning.  Saw some amazing historical weapons, some going back to the Civil War.” 

Vance is, of course, the author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, now running as Republican for the U.S. Senate from Ohio.

I found the tweet curious.  After all, Vance has told us an awful lot about himself in all that he’s written, and he’s never held himself out as an outdoorsman, hunter, or gun collector. In his memoir, Vance did mention his Papaw giving him a BB gun.  And we know Vance did a stint in the Marine Corps, but his was a desk job, in “public affairs.”    

So what gives with the kid at the gun show? 

I suspect the answer lies in what Vance wished to communicate with his tweet—and who he wished to reach.  Vance has recently taken policy positions that indicate a right-ward lurch on a range of polarizing issues.  He notoriously retracted his 2016 criticism of Trump and has been chasing Trump’s endorsement for months.  But Vance may have accomplished more with that single tweet than with all his recent op-eds and policy statements combined.  After all, few messages will reach a MAGA voter as clearly and directly as a kid at a gun show.

As I thought about Vance’s tweet, though, I realized that in a different place and time—and from a different source—I would not have recoiled from a photo of a child at a gun show any more than I would have recoiled from a photo of a child accompanying a parent on an errand to the barber shop or an outing to the county fair. 

That’s because I grew up in rural Arkansas, in a place where hunting was so common and culturally significant that school was dismissed the first two days of deer season every November.  The local newspaper regularly published photos of kids as young as 10 years with the deer they’d bagged.  I’d wager that 90% of the households in my community owned guns, all used primarily for hunting and target practice, with a spectral need for defense of home and family at back of mind.  Implicit in this culture was a healthy respect for the lethality of these tools. 

Lisa Pruitt grew up in rural Arkansas, where school was dismissed the first two days of deer season and hunting was commonplace. The newspaper published photographs of young people celebrating the the first deer they bagged. (Courtesy of the author)

But guns have long signaled something different in rural places than in urban ones.  Just as significant, guns now signify something radically different than they did a few decades ago.  In short, guns have become highly politicized, both a cause and a symbol of our nation’s accelerating polarization.    

If you’re curious about that shifting meaning and the rural-urban rift in relation to firearms, you’ll want to read Gunfight:  My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America, a compelling and timely new book by Ryan Busse.   

Busse, who grew up rural in western Kansas and until last year was a gun industry executive, uses memoir as a vehicle for serving up a tell all on one of the nation’s most secretive, profitable, and powerful industries.  He takes the reader through step after increasingly painful step of how the firearms industry—effectively corralled and led by the National Rifle Association—became so mighty a force in American life and politics that many in Congress quake in their boots at the very mention of three little letters:  NRA.  

Two Factions of Gun Owners

Busse attempts to thread the needle between two broad factions of gun owners.  On the one hand are hunters and outdoors folk, the aficionados of guns like old-school, bolt-action rifles, pistols with artisan grips and such—the sorts of guns that are, or could become, family heirlooms.  The folks who own these guns are widely associated with rural America.  They’re the people I grew up with.

On the other hand are what the industry once pejoratively (and politically incorrectly) called “tactards,” those drawn to fire power, high capacity magazines, and the semi-automatic experience associated with so-called “black rifles.”  Interestingly, lots of folks also associate these guns with rural America, though no one needs a semi-automatic weapon to hunt game or to protect themselves.   

Busse is firmly in the former camp.  His love of guns and the outdoors—and his respect for both—drew him as a fresh-faced 20-something to his dream job with Kimber, a boutique manufacturer of rifles and pistols based in Kalispell, Montana.  The early rollicking pages of Gunfight exude a youthful enthusiasm. Those chapters are populated by colorful characters like Busse’s first boss at Kimber, an Aussie who ate three meals a day at the neighborhood strip club (who knew strip clubs served breakfast?) and a fellow Kimber salesman with a “world-class mullet,” a mustard-yellow pick-up, a dog named Ted Nugent (after the famously pro-gun rocker), and chronic girlfriend problems.

But as Busse climbs the corporate ladder, the gun scene in the United States shifts away from the old guard gun faction, which Busse calls “wise men,” and towards the tactards and their black rifles.  This is where the tale turns ominous—for both Busse and the nation.  There’s the bullet-proof glass erected at Kimber’s manufacturing facility to protect executives in the event a worker “goes postal.”  There are the crass jokes about a “back-to-school sale” on guns in the wake of Columbine.  Eventually, as Busse refuses to toe the industry line on politics, there are threats against him.   

From ‘Old Guard’ to ‘Tactard’

This shift from old guard to tactard is illustrated well by two vignettes from Gunfight.

The before times are represented with a description of the Southwind Classic, an annual prairie dog hunt Kimber sponsored at the Kansas ranch of Busse’s youth.  The event gathered trade journalists to try the company’s wares and have a good time.  When a young writer showed up at the event in 2004 with an AR-15, the wise men of the industry

huddled around the new kid to explain the unwritten rules of their polite gun society. … ‘Look, son “normal” people don’t use or shoot that kind of gun,’ one of them explained. … ‘We’re not like those tactards,’ someone said, referring to … fringe consumers who believed more in the rifles of militia building than the art and craftsmanship of the fine guns we were trying to sell.

Fast forward eight years to the after times.  Busse describes in chilling detail the Bushmaster XM-15 E2S Shorty AK that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012: “specifically designed for professional military combat in close-quarter situations … like vehicles, terrorist-filled caves, and buildings with numerous hallways and doors—building like grade schools.”  Busse details the gun’s various upgrades to establish that Lanza was “equipped with the most lethal military weaponry ever made,” thus illustrating how the industry had shifted to cater to the very tactards the old guard had shamed and shunned less than a decade earlier. 

Busse argues that fearmongering and associated pressures within the firearms industry effectively fueled not only the development of guns like Lanza’s—guns “designed to win wars through efficient mass killing”—but also the demand for them:

“Social media accounts boomed. New companies were built. Fortunes were made. Lanza and his rifles were products of it all, and when he arrived at Sandy Hook and pulled out his own black rifle, there were no norms left to break.”

Studies in contrast like this one make Gunfight a menacing account of how quickly the firearms industry changed, in a deadly feedback loop with what Busse sees as a radicalized segment of America.  But it’s impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg?  That is, was the firearms industry fomenting the radicalization, as Busse asserts, or was it radical, right-wing forces outside the industry that prodded firearms manufacturers down the incendiary and deadly path they are still on?

Busse’s Big Pivot

Whether the genesis of the polarizing winds was from within the industry or outside it, Busse saw the tornado taking shape on the horizon well before Sandy Hook.  Busse’s big pivot—at once personal and professional—came midway through the Bush administration when he spoke out in a high-profile venue against a Bush-Cheney plan to open public lands in the West to energy exploration.  Among the places at risk was Badger-Two Medicine, Busse’s most beloved Montana hunting grounds and a place sacred to the Blackfeet tribe. 

Busse didn’t see his pro-conservation position as being at odds with his employer or his industry, explaining he was “trying to help save places so we can sell more guns.”  But his stance attracted attention from across the political spectrum because it marked him as a turncoat, “a red-meat gun executive who criticizes a Republican.”  Busse writes of being “betrayed and embarrassed” at having “been duped into believing I was part of an industry that shared the values of my childhood—much of the talk about conservation and hunting was just another ruse to get people like me into the culture war.”  

Both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation came down on Kimber for Busse’s opposition to the Bush administration plan, and for a time, his job seemed to hang by a thread.  Yet the attention Busse garnered from his contrarian stance convinced him he could “exert an outsized impact by staying inside the industry.”  So stay he did.  By Busse’s account, he was a fly in the ointment of the firearms industry during that time, a consistent voice of moderation in the face of a freight train barreling in the direction of hate, intolerance, fear—and the attendant proliferation of military- style weapons available to anyone who wanted them.

Busse’s writing is clear, and the story thread of Gunfight is fast-paced and engaging.  He does a fine job of stitching together much of the recent history and politics of firearms in America.  But perhaps Busse’s greatest value add is having been in the room where it happened.  Busse was privy to industry decisions about marketing and re-positioning their wares to take advantage of shifting tides and emerging cultural forces. 

Among these forces was the role of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans-turned-influencers, men like Kyle Best and Mat Lamb who developed massive followings on social media and inspired wannabes that the industry called “couch commandos,”

the millions of consumers who had never fought in a war, much less joined the military, but who nonetheless considered themselves experts simply because they scrolled through the social media feeds of [influencers] like Lamb and Best, and knew how to play first-person-shooter video games from the comfort and safety of their couches.

Thanks to the demand created by consumers like these, guns in “desert tan” finish became a standard feature of new product launches. 

Other aspects of gun marketing also morphed to meet the moment’s burgeoning new consumer sectors.  Corporate leaders had previously consulted with attorneys to avoid giving guns names that might expose companies to liability on the basis that they encouraged deadly  behavior.  Thus products had long been marketed with mundane names like Kimber Custom Classic, the Remington 870, and the Smith & Wesson Model 629.  But as the industry shifted to fuel sales to the new “tactical culture,” it embraced provocative names like the Ultimate Arms Warmonger and the Combat Super Sniper AR-10.

The pages of Gunfight are replete with illustrations of the power and greed of the firearms industry.  Take the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment, introduced in 2013 in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Seeing some federal gun reform as inevitable—and even a good idea—a few industry players expressed early support for the amendment, a less restrictive option than one proposed by the Obama administration.

The Manchin-Toomey amendment would have done nothing but close the loophole that permits purchasers to avoid background checks when they buy at gun shows.  That law had long been a thorn in the flesh of those seeking regulation, in part because it was that very loophole that had enabled Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to get their hands on the guns they used to kill 15 at Columbine High School in 1999.  Indeed, the loophole is another reason the photo of Vance at a gun show is, well, triggering—no pun intended—for those who support common sense gun reform. 

As Busse explains it, the Manchin-Toomey amendment would have had a negligible impact on gun sales, simply channeling purchasers to established retailers.  But for the NRA, stopping the law—any gun safety law—was about more than short-term profits.  It had become a matter of principle after Smith & Wesson secretly negotiated with the Clinton administration in 2000 to agree to several safety features and marketing limitations, e.g., trigger locks, not marketing firearms to the general public, in exchange for limits on liability associated with handgun violence. 

Combined with Clinton’s success with the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban of the 1990s, Smith & Wesson’s move—considered a betrayal to the industry—had been too much for the NRA to bear; indeed, it also put both Clintons permanently in the cross-hairs of the organization.  After Smith & Wesson’s back room deal, Busse asserts, the industry rigorously policed internal dissent.  It embraced zero tolerance of gun safety regulation and developed a lobbying machine capable of achieving that goal.    

It was in that context that Wayne LaPierre and his deputies went for broke on Manchin-Toomey.  In the face of what looked like the worst of a string of public relations disasters for the gun industry over the course of a few decades—the massacre of 20 first graders and six educators—the NRA announced it would “score the vote” on the amendment.  This meant politicians’ NRA rating was at stake.  Too many senators, anxious to retain their A+ grade from the NRA, were unwilling to call the organization’s bluff.  Manchin-Toomey failed by a vote of 54-46. 

A Million Gun Sales after Sandy Hook

If the slaughter of innocents with a semi-automatic rifle inside the walls of a primary school couldn’t move the needle on gun reform, it got harder to imagine what could.  Equally shocking was the NRA’s decision to roll out a new slogan in the wake of Sandy Hook:  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Again, the firearms industry turned a national tragedy into a literal call to arms, which meant it conveniently doubled as a sales opportunity.  Not only did the slogan stick among a growing number of second amendment absolutists, a million guns sold in the week following the massacre.  Other staggering new records were set, as daily gun sales hit 30-to-40 times normal levels at national retailers like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s and tens of thousands of high-capacity magazines flew off the shelves in a single hour.

As Busse expresses it, the firearms industry had again succeeded “in converting an opportunity to make policy improvements into just another temperature increase for the national pressure cooker.”  It is that failure to make policy improvements that Busse seems to think portends ill for gun owners like him and other hunters, those of the old-fashioned, wise men variety.  Busse argues that if gun owners won’t accept moderate regulations, they risk far more sweeping regulations once the legislative tide finally turns on gun safety measures.  The weakness in his argument is that it’s nearly impossible to see that tide ever turning with sufficient force to threaten the sorts of guns the old guard values and owns.    

The firearms industry flex, like the one in response to Manchin-Toomey, is a move Busse documents through one mass murder after another—and through one Democratic administration after another.  The specter of regulation always goosed gun sales, in part because the firearms industry messaged paranoia—even lies—about the loss of gun rights.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, the NRA claimed Obama would “ban use of firearms for home self defense,” “ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns,” develop plans to “ban virtually all deer hunting ammunition” and “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution.”  No evidence supported these assertions, but like the “alternative facts” that came to be associated with the Trump administration a few election cycles later, truth was beside the point. 

In talking about how the industry leveraged Obama’s Blackness to drive up fear, Busse doesn’t shy away from calling out a racial dog whistle.  For example, he summarizes the NRA’s message about Obama’s candidacy:  “the only thing worse than losing a culture was having it taken by a Black community organizer from Chicago with a law degree from Harvard.”  

Book Ignores Street Violence, Suicide

Yet Gunfight generally neglects other racialized and gendered phenomena associated with guns.  These include the role of firearms in killing thousands every year—disproportionately people of color—in street violence, as well as their role in an epidemic of intimate partner violence.  The word “suicide” isn’t used once in the book.  Busse also glosses over controversies associated with self-defense, though he does name names in placing the blame for the “Stand Your Ground” law that protected George Zimmerman when he killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012:  Marion Hammer, LaPierre’s predecessor at the NRA.  The epidemic of children—including toddlers—who get their hands on guns and kill or wound people accidentally or purposefully also is not taken up in the book, though this phenomon surely implicates all gun owners and suggests that the gun safety norms that were a feature of my rural upbringing have fallen away.  All told, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost to gun violence in the last decade, but Busse sticks almost entirely to headline-grabbing mass shootings to bolster his depiction of an industry with no internal controls and, he concludes, no decency. 

Following Busse’s initial dust-up with the firearms industry over his pro-conservation stance, he describes an enterprise in airtight alignment with the Republican Party and all its policy stances.  What Busse reveals, in fact, sounds remarkably like an early iteration of the sort of loyalty and purity tests we have seen more recently in American politics, though associated with the cult of personality as much or more than policy positions.  Consider that the few members of the GOP supporting an investigation into the Capitol insurrection of January 6 have become pariahs within their party.  

Indeed, while Gunfight was already in the publication pipeline on January 6, 2021, it’s interesting to revisit the line Busse draws between the old guard and the tactards in light of that day’s events.  Initial reports suggested that it was rural and working class white folks who’d stormed the Capitol, but subsequent investigation has revealed that relatively affluent suburbanites led the charge.  The coastal elites among whom I live and work tend similarly to associate rural folks with the black-rifle set—if they differentiate at all between Busse’s two factions of gun owners.  Guns have thus become one more reason for folks in my uber woke world to cast rural residents as the bad guys, though I suspect there is no more correlation between rurality and the take-no-prisoners, permit-no-regulation set in the gun industry than the media have found between rurality and the January 6 insurrectionists.       

Gunfight depicts the firearms industry as a big bully, but it hasn’t just bullied senators, members of Congress and, by extension, the entire nation.  Part of the book’s tension comes from the parallel bullying Busse experienced as a dissident within.  In one jarring scene, Busse’s boss at Kimber—angry at slumping gun sales at the end of Obama’s presidency—quips, “The problem is that we have Democrats.  Let’s solve our problems, Ryan.  How about we just kill all the Democrats? Well, all of them except you, Ryan.  Let’s kill all the Democrats except Ryan.”  

In the face of such an abusive workplace, Busse’s explanation for why he stayed at Kimber as long as he did is not always convincing.  At several junctures, one fears he will sacrifice his marriage for the company and his career, as his wife repeatedly implores him to get out of the gun business.  In the face of these pressures, one assumes that Busse was not only stubborn, but presumably well compensated, perhaps anticipating that Kimber would go public and deliver a windfall.  That didn’t happen, and sanity—as well as the proverbial love of a good woman—ultimately prevailed when Busse left Kimber in mid-2020.

As should be evident by now, Gunfight is not just about guns.  It’s about how guns have become a potent symbol in the culture wars—of Right v. Left, Republican v. Democrat and—accurately or not—rural v. urban.  This book is also about greed, power, lobbyists, the post 9/11 wars, militias, and how we got to January 6.  At the end of the day, Busse may convince you that guns are not only literally killing people, they’ve become a potent symbol of the polarization that’s killing our democracy.

Lisa Pruitt is a the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, and runs the Legal Ruralism Blog. She previously reviewed Senator Jon Tester’s memoir, Grounded, for the Daily Yonder and was interviewed for the Yonder’s Path Finders series in April 2021.