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The gun-toting Democratic candidate for Montana governor is walking a fine line

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The gun-toting Democratic candidate for Montana governor is walking a fine line

Sep 26, 2023 | 6:57 am ET
By Russell Rowland
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The gun-toting Democratic candidate for Montana governor is walking a fine line
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Ryan Busse, a former gun manufacturer executive, author and Kalispell resident, testifies at a Congressional hearing on July 27, 2022.

Two years ago, I interviewed Ryan Busse for my podcast on Montana books, “Breakfast in Montana,” just before his book, “Gunfight,” hit the streets with a bang, if you’ll pardon the pun. The book became quite a sensation, and Busse has been quietly building support since then, culminating in an announcement last week that he is running for governor. 

For those who don’t know, “Gunfight” is the story of Busse’s long career in the gun industry, a job he loved so much that he helped his company, Kimber, become one of the more popular gun manufacturers in the country. But over time, Busse became more and more uncomfortable with the influence that the National Rifle Association had on his industry, and more specifically, on the Republican Party. Although he couldn’t exactly speak openly about his opposition to this growing influence, at the risk of losing his job, he wasn’t shy about supporting other causes, specifically those related to the environment and public lands. But after Sandy Hook, Busse’s conscience finally got the best of him, and he made the decision to leave his position and write a book exposing the blatant control that the NRA holds over the gun industry. 

Although we didn’t discuss it during the podcast, my podcast partner and I talked privately about how Busse seemed to be angling for a run for office. His insights into how the NRA has slowly taken control of the Republican party were well articulated, and there were strong indications that he wasn’t just disgusted with what was happening, but that he was determined to do something about it. 

If I’m honest about it, when I first read “Gunfight,” I struggled with the fact that it took Busse so long to make the decision to leave Kimber. And I also felt as if the book showed too much effort to walk a fine line between being someone who still loves his guns, but who dislikes how they’ve come to be used in the political arena. But the more I think about it, most good politicians have to figure out a way to walk that fine line one way or another. 

The thing that’s interesting so far about Busse’s campaign is that he seems to be anticipating one of the main areas of contention that he can probably expect from the far right, which is that this book shows that he’s going to be another liberal trying to take your guns away. So far, every ad Busse has put out features him either toting or shooting a gun. But he’s also making a clear statement early on about his main focus, which is bringing more of a sense of responsibility to the state, not only when it comes to guns, but when it comes to the use of public lands, the rights of women, and as he stated in a recent interview with MSNBC, the rights of our citizens to the First Amendment. 

Busse’s sons were both part of the cadre of young people who recently won a lawsuit against the state for violations against the Montana constitution’s clearly stated right to a clean and healthful environment. So Busse is making a concerted effort to promote responsible gun ownership, but he’s also making it clear that guns are not his sole focus. 

As he put it in the interview we did with him, “The political radicalization that we now live within as a country was developed, perfected, and then handed off by the firearms industry to the political right.” 

Busse makes it clear from his ads that he thinks Gianforte has made life more difficult for the average Montana by trying to create a culture that favors people like himself, who see Montana as a playground for the rich, something I’ve been preaching for a long time now. So one of his ads features his wife and sons “throwing” clay pigeons with some of the more egregious of Gianforte’s policies, and Busse and his sons obliterating them mid-air. It’s a clever way to reinforce the idea that he’s capable of and determined to embrace both our Second Amendment rights and the idea that we all have bigger responsibilities toward our kids and those who are struggling to get by. 

It’s not hard to imagine what’s going to happen from here. Democrats in Montana have been complaining for years that we can’t seem to produce any strong candidates for major offices, and yet when someone has the courage to step forward and run, the party always manages to find something about their approach that doesn’t fit with what it wants.

Busse will come under fire for being too vocal about being for guns, but it’s hard to imagine anyone winning in this state without taking a similar approach. Tester has managed to walk that delicate line for years now, and I hope people will give Busse a chance, especially considering that nobody else is stepping forward.

You can hear more of the interview with Busse here