From 1995 to 2020, I worked for the firearms manufacturer Kimber. As the industry began to embrace extremism and conspiracy, I did what I could to fight back from the inside. When industry marketing celebrated armed vigilantism to sell guns, I left.
I’m still a proud gun owner who believes in responsibility. These days I use my platform to advocate for commonsense gun safety measures and call out dangerous and toxic marketing in the industry – which is why I was invited to testify before the US House committee on oversight and reform last week.
Like the others appearing, including two gun company chief executives, I was asked to submit written testimony for the official congressional record. I was warned that I would be under oath and prepared for the possibility that the large, high-profile hearing would go for several hours and include direct attacks on me. All of this happened – but that’s not why testifying was so frightening.
The reason I found the hearing so scary was because it made clearer than ever that gun companies and their executives have completely abdicated responsibility and common sense. Their industry is nakedly marketing to – and in the process perhaps even creating – the next generation of mass shooters, all in service of their bottom line.
At the beginning of these sorts of hearings, each witness has time to address the committee. I described how guns like the AR-15 were a pariah before 2008. In the less than 15 years since, however, they’ve become both a powerful authoritarian symbol and also the industry’s bread and butter.
I talked about how there’s no longer a place in the firearms industry for anyone who believes in moderation or responsible regulation. If they did exist, they’ve long been frightened into submission or forced out. Despite guns being at the center of radicalized domestic terrorism, there has been no industry rebuke of the “come and take it” flags of the January 6 insurrection, of armed men invading the Michigan capital, or of Kyle Rittenhouse killing people at a protest with his Smith & Wesson Military & Police-line rifle.
This is exactly what I witnessed during last week’s five-hour hearing. Alarmingly, but not shockingly, the two gun industry chiefs called as witnesses – Marty Daniel, CEO of Daniel Defense, and Christopher Killoy, president and CEO of Ruger – refused to take any responsibility for the role of guns and industry marketing in our country’s worsening spate of mass shootings and gun violence.
In light of the white-supremacist shooting in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 Black grocery shoppers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Daniel about one of his company’s ads, which depicted a gunman with a Norse tattoo known to be favored by white supremacists and by the QAnon shaman. Daniel acted surprised. Sadly, I was not surprised.
Despite the fact that they are both board members of the industry’s trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), Killoy and Daniel refused to disavow fellow industry members for marketing to extremist “Boogaloo Boys” by making a gun with the same floral pattern worn by the far-right group.
The NSSF, which represents virtually all gun companies, has itself grown more and more extreme in recent years: the group claims to support gun safety but in reality has spent about 5% of its revenue on safety initiatives in recent years. Much of the rest of the budget has been spent to create a marketplace where any new gun customer or any new firearms marketing is embraced no matter how extreme or irresponsible.
At the hearing, Daniel and Killoy refused to condemn ads devised by NSSF members, including a Spike’s Tactical ad depicting an armed confrontation with antifa. One particularly disturbing post by Daniel Defense depicts a young child cradling an AR-15, accompanied by the biblical text: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The photo was posted on social media on 16 May, mere days before an 18-year-old used a Daniel Defense rifle to murder 19 schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. The photo has since been deleted. When questioned about the ad, Daniel defended it, saying it was meant to teach children about gun safety.
Sadly, the extremism of the industry is now being supported by Republicans, who invited a witness from Gun Owners of America (GOA) – a group so extreme that it calls for abolishing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – as one of their experts.
As someone who used to be on the inside, I’m here to warn you that there is much more of this marketing on the way, and it is likely to worsen. No one from the industry is going to stop it. It’s up to responsible gun owners and others who care about our country and the freedom of all citizens to speak out against this egregiously irresponsible behavior and in favor of commonsense laws like universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders.
If we don’t, I fear the next congressional hearing will be even more unsettling than this one.
Ryan Busse is a former executive in the firearms industry who is now a senior policy adviser for Giffords. He is the author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America