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Even the Gun Industry Knew We Would End Up Here

When mass access to guns merges with political fetishization, nothing good can happen.
May 24, 2022
Even the Gun Industry Knew We Would End Up Here
BUFFALO, NY - MAY 15: Jeanne LeGall, of Buffalo, hugs another visitor who came to pay their respects at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Last week’s Buffalo murders are the byproduct of a gun industry business model designed to profit from increasing hatred, fear, and conspiracy.

How do I know? Because for years I was a senior executive in the firearms industry.

Like many people in America, I was raised around guns—in my case on a ranch with a family who hunted and shot together. It was there that I learned the basic truths of interacting with guns and I brought that experience into the gun industry beginning in 1995.

For the first few years of my career, I experienced very little in the way of conflict within myself or with other firearms executives, because the industry operated under a self-imposed code of responsibility. The industry’s own trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) went so far as to formalize this “code of conduct” with strict rules which applied to every single industry company.

The NSSF sets the rules for its trade shows. 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—could not be displayed or advertised in the main sections of its trade show.

These self-imposed industry regulations also produced a set of norms that all industry members followed. There was no advertising meant to incite irresponsible behavior. There was no partnership between firearms and incendiary right-wing political movements. There was no celebration of firearms as tools to “own the libs.”

This delicate balance started to erode as Barack Obama rose in the polls beginning in 2007. People like me who sensed the impending danger of this shift towards extremism were shouted down. When beloved industry icons raised concerns, even going so far as to label AR15s as “terrorist rifles,” their careers were immediately terminated. Time and again, these alarms were raised, and time and again, the sound of fundraising hauls, election night parties, and cash registers at the gun counters drowned them out.

Since 1997, firearms sales have increased by over 600 percent, from annual sales of about 4 million guns to current totals of nearly 25 million. Today at industry trade shows, banners and social media posts for tactical gear are everywhere.

Once, gun companies were careful to avoid incitement with gun monikers, but now there are trademarked names such as the Urban Super Sniper and AR15 campaigns that promise the owner will “get their man card back.”

When gun sales sag, as they did during the middle of the Trump presidency, one can find hopeful ad campaigns selling guns for a future of armed conflict with left-wing agitators. Industry leaders fawn over Tucker Carlson, especially when he extends his manufactured replacement theories to the AR15. Where there was once a strict avoidance of incendiary politics, now anyone can buy truckloads of “Let’s Go Brandon” or “Lock her up” high-capacity AR15 magazines while Donald Trump Jr. cheers them on. And for the truly adventurous, there are even the Q-AR15s, alluding to the conspiracy theory QAnon and favored by Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Today the industry is all in on any pro-gun influencer, especially if they spout hateful, racist, or misogynistic rhetoric. People like Ted Nugent and Sebastian Gorka are received as heroes at gun industry trade shows. Instigators like Alex Jones are discussed in hushed tones as if they are deities. Even after fomenting insurrection, Donald Trump is welcomed as the main draw of the NRA convention and most gun companies eagerly line up to court the resulting frenzied masses.

Today, there is only one guiding gun industry principle, and it’s found in the NSSF’s marketing material: “always shooting for more.”

Responsible gun owners know that the Buffalo shooter is partially a product of calculated but ill-advised gun industry practices that focus on profits at the expense of decades-long gun safety norms. The results are no surprise to us.

Sadly, there is nothing broken about what we’re experiencing: The system is working exactly as intended.

We are all now living, and dying, with the consequences.

Ryan Busse

Ryan Busse is a former award-winning executive in the firearms industry who is now a senior policy advisor for Giffords. He is the author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America. Twitter: @ryandbusse.