America’s gun culture is unique. My photographs can help explain why.

On this Fourth of July, we should consider the benefits, drawbacks, and price of freedom.

The Fourth of July, one of the country’s foundational holidays, is celebrated today. Today is a day to reflect on patriotism, liberty, and freedom – who enjoys them, and how those rights can (or should) or should not be constrained. When is the price of freedom too great, and what does freedom cost? These issues are never more contentious or intensely felt than in the context of American gun culture.

I very clearly recall my first day in the country. Monday, toward the end of January 2004. I arrived in Houston about 3 p.m. and promptly drove 165 miles to Austin.
I’ll never forget those first three hours in the United States. 10-lane highways packed with enormous cars, an expanse of skyscrapers in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country, oil wells in the middle of the desert, and at least 15 billboards advertising gun shops on either side of the road.
I have visited the United States at least 20 more times since that day. And my affection for the nation has never wavered. Actually, it has expanded. I spent a lot of time working and working on photography projects there, gathering hundreds of American people’ stories. I consider the United States to be a sort of second home, and I enjoy visiting it because it never ceases to astound me, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

I learned three years ago that the United States is home to 45% of the world’s estimated 860 million private guns. There are currently more firearms available for private ownership in the US than there are citizens. For every 327 million people, there were around 393 million weapons in 2018. However, with the boom in gun ownership in America over the last few years, this number has only increased.

A third of Americans are gun owners. In other words, a lot of gun owners have multiple firearms, not just one.
I questioned myself, “But who are all these gun owners?” And with this straightforward query running through my mind, I went into a gun shop one day and struck up a conversation with a few of the shoppers. “How many are there in your home?” One of them, I asked. More than sixty, he answered.
Soon after, I was at his house taking his portrait among the entirety of his collection.
Like a friend might show me his record collection or watch collection, he was proud to show me his weaponry. When I noticed that many guns in one home, I was astounded. He was shocked to learn that I had no firearms in Italy.
A few days later, I posed the identical query to someone in Texas. I quickly acquired my second image, which was of a woman holding her 20 rifles and 30 pistols.

My curiosity was definitely piqued at that point. I was curious to learn more and to discover the reasons behind the passion certain Americans feel for their firearms. I presented National Geographic with my project idea, and with their help, I embarked on a cross-country, 35-state road journey with the goal of documenting, researching, and photographing American gun culture.
I met folks from all different backgrounds. They were men and women from all socioeconomic classes, including the wealthy, the impoverished, Republicans, Democrats, straight, homosexual, young, and the elderly. All of them welcomed me and treated me with kindness. They frequently disproved the preconceived notions that many of us hold about gun aficionados. They occasionally didn’t.

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My objective as a documentary photographer has been to comprehend rather than condemn American gun culture. Over the course of over 230 years, Americans’ relationship with firearms has solidified into a deep emotional bond and national identity. Gun culture has changed, grown, and gotten stronger through time. Along with symbolism, self-defense, and recreational use, capitalism and commercial gain also have a significant influence. Contradictions and conflicts inevitably follow.

My images have been quite popular worldwide, but especially in the United States, in the recent weeks following the Uvalde massacre. They serve as a kind of cultural Rorschach test, provoking conflicting feelings and behaviours. Unfortunately, this may lessen the likelihood of finding a solution to the country’s gun violence epidemic as each side digs in deeper.
Whatever your opinions on the Second Amendment, there is a crisis in American gun violence. The terrible tragedy of murdered children highlights this issue, but there are tens of thousands — on average 40,000 — of additional gun-related deaths that go unreported every year. These homicides, suicides, and home accidents happen so frequently now that they are seldom ever discussed.
They’re welcomed. They are accustomed to it.

My photos, in my opinion, shock people because they show how deeply weapons are ingrained in so many people’s daily lives. Mass shootings are hardly the only issue here. It concerns America’s very identity. On a day that is supposed to represent freedom from oppression, I hope that my pictures may encourage further introspection and perhaps even change.

Related:

  1. In the state of New York, I have a concealed carry permit. That is incorrect, Supreme Court.
    2. In an effort to hide, Republicans are turning to the Second Amendment. Stop letting them.
    3. The terrible and distinctly American fear of being shot while going about daily activities.
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