Today, America celebrates the 4th of July, one of its signature holidays. It’s a day to meditate on patriotism, freedom, and liberty – who has it, and how it can or should (or shouldn’t) be limited. How much does freedom cost, and when is the price too high? Nowhere are these issues felt so acutely or divisively in the context of American gun culture.
It’s a day to meditate on freedom – who has it, and how it can or should (or shouldn’t) be limited.
I vividly remember my first day in the United States. It was a Monday at the end of January 2004. I landed around 3:00 p.m. in Houston and from there immediately traveled about 265 miles to Austin.
Those first three hours in the United States left a lasting impression on me. A stretch of skyscrapers in the center of one of the country’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 shops 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, he grew up. I did a lot of photography work and projects there, collecting hundreds of stories from American citizens. The United States is a kind of second home for me, and I love going back because it’s a country that always manages to amaze me, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Three years ago I read that of the approximately 860 million private guns in the world, 45% are in the United States. In the United States, there are currently more guns for private use than there are people. In 2018, there were around 393 million firearms for around 327 million people. But that number has only increased in recent years with the increase in American gun ownership.
About a third of Americans own guns. Which means many gun owners own not just one, but many.
But who are all these gun owners, I wondered. And with that simple question in my head, I walked into a gun store one day and started talking to some customers. “How many do you have at home? I asked one of them. “Over 60,” he replied.
Shortly after, I was at his house taking his portrait with his entire collection.
He was proud to show me his arsenal, the same way a friend would show me his vinyl collection, or watches. I was surprised to see so many guns in a house. He was surprised that in Italy I didn’t own a single firearm.
A few days later I was in Texas asking the same question. Within hours, I had my second photograph: a woman with her 30 pistols and 20 rifles.
At that point, my curiosity was definitely ignited. I wanted to know more, to find out what is at the origin of this to like that some Americans have for their guns. I pitched the idea for a project to National Geographic and, with their support, embarked on a road trip across the country in 35 states with the intention of photographing, interviewing and learning about the culture American guns.
The people I met came from all walks of life. They were men and women from all sociopolitical backgrounds – rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, straight, gay, young and old. They were all very welcoming and kind to me. In many cases, they challenged the stereotypes many of us have about gun enthusiasts. Sometimes they didn’t.
As a documentary photographer, my goal has been to understand gun culture in America, not judge it. In some 230 years, the connection between Americans and guns has become visceral – an emotional connection and an identity. Over the years, gun culture has evolved, broadened and strengthened. Apart from recreational use, self-defense and symbolism, it is also heavily influenced by capitalism and commercial gain. Inevitable contradictions and tensions ensue.
Over the past few weeks after the Uvalde massacre, my photos have gone viral around the world, especially in the United States. They are a kind of cultural Rorschach test, triggering opposing and conflicting actions and reactions. Each side is digging deeper and, unfortunately, that 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 child deaths punctuates this issue, but every year there are thousands and thousands – an average of 40,000 per year – of other gun-related deaths that do not make the headlines. These daily homicides, suicides and domestic accidents have become so frequent that we don’t really talk about them anymore.
They are accepted. They are used to.
I think my photographs shock people because they show how guns are integrated into so many daily lives. It’s not just about mass shootings. This is the very identity of America. On this day meant to symbolize independence from tyranny, I hope my photographs can inspire deeper reflection and, perhaps, change.