Today, America celebrates the Fourth of July, one of its seminal holidays. It is a day to meditate on patriotism and liberty and freedom — who has it, and how it can or should (or should not) be limited. What does freedom cost, and when is the price too high? Nowhere are these questions quite so acutely felt or divisively held then in the context of America’s gun culture.
It is a day to meditate on freedom — who has it, and how it can or should (or should not) be limited.
I vividly remember my first day in the U.S. It was a Monday in late January 2004. I landed around 3 p.m. in Houston, and from there immediately drove about 165 miles to Austin.
Those first three hours in the United States left a lasting impression on me. An expanse of skyscrapers in the center of one of the nation’s largest cities; oil wells in the middle of the desert; 10-lane highways loaded with giant cars — and at least 15 billboards for gun stores lining both sides of the highway.
Since that day, I have traveled to the United States at least 20 more times. And my love for the country has never diminished. In fact, it has grown. I have done a lot of work and photography projects there, collecting hundreds of stories of American citizens. The U.S. is a kind of second home to me, and I love going back because it is a country that always manages to amaze me — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Three years ago, I read that of the world’s approximately 860 million private weapons, 45% are in the U.S. In the U.S. right now there are more guns for private use than there are people. In 2018, there were about 393 million guns for around 327 million inhabitants. But that number has only risen in the past few years as American gun ownership has surged.
Around a third of Americans own guns. Which means that many gun owners do not just own one — but many.
But who are all these gun owners, I asked myself. And with this simple question in my head, I walked into a gun store one day and started talking to some of the customers. “How many do you have at home?” I asked one of them. “More than 60,” he replied.
A short time later I was at his house taking his portrait with his entire collection.
He was proud to show me his arsenal, in the same way a friend would show me his collection of vinyl, or watches. I was amazed to see so many guns in one house. He was amazed that in Italy I did not own a single firearm.
A couple of days later, I was in Texas asking the same question. Within a few hours, I had my second photograph: a woman with her 30 pistols and 20 rifles.
At that moment my curiosity was definitely ignited. I wanted to understand more, to find out what is at the root of this love that some Americans have for their guns. I pitched the idea of a project to National Geographic, and with its support, I set off on a cross-country, 35-state road trip with the intention of photographing, interviewing and discovering American gun culture.
The people I met came from all walks of life. They were men and women from all sociopolitical backgrounds — rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, straight, gay, young and old. They were all very welcoming and kind to me. In many cases, they defied the stereotypes that many of us have about gun enthusiasts. Sometimes they did not.
Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week’s most important political analysis
As a documentary photographer, my goal has been to understand gun culture in America, not to judge it. Over some 230 years, the bond between Americans and firearms has become visceral — an emotional relationship an identity. Over the years, gun culture has evolved, expanded and strengthened. Aside from recreational use, self-defense and symbolism, it is also heavily influenced by capitalism and commercial gain. Inevitable contradictions and tensions follow.
In the past few weeks, after the Uvalde massacre, my photos have gone viral around the world, especially in the U.S. They are a sort of cultural Rorschach test, sparking opposing and divisive actions and reactions. Each side digs in further and, unfortunately, this may make a solution to America’s gun violence crisis less likely.
And whatever your feelings about the Second Amendment, American gun violence is a crisis. The enormous tragedy of dead children punctuates this problem, but each year there are thousands and thousands — an average of 40,000 per year — of other gun-related deaths that don’t make headlines. These daily homicides, suicides and domestic accidents have become so common that they are not really talked about anymore.
They are accepted. They are habitualized.
I think my photographs shock people because they highlight the extent to which guns are embedded in so many everyday lives. This isn’t just about mass shootings. It’s about the very identity of America. On a day meant to symbolize independence from tyranny, I hope that my photographs can inspire deeper reflection and, perhaps, change.