Today America celebrates the fourth of July, one of the most important holidays. It’s a day to meditate on patriotism and liberty and liberty – who has it, and how it can or should (or should not) be restricted. What does freedom cost, and when is the price too high? Nowhere are these questions so acutely felt or divisive as in the context of America’s gun culture.
It’s a day to meditate on freedom – who has it, and how it can or should (or should not) be restricted.
I vividly remember my first day in the US. It was a Monday in late January 2004. I landed in Houston about 3:00 PM and immediately drove about 265 miles to Austin from there.
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 country’s largest cities; oil wells in the middle of the desert; 10-lane highways full of giant cars – and at least 15 billboards for gun stores along 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 waned. In fact, it has grown. I did a lot of work and photography projects there and collected hundreds of stories from American citizens. The US is like a second home to me, and I love going back because it’s a country that always manages to amaze me – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Three years ago I read that of the approximately 860 million privately owned weapons in the world, 45% are located in the US in the US there are currently more guns for private use than people† In 2018 there were about 393 million guns for about 327 million inhabitants. But that number has only risen in recent years as US gun ownership has increased.
Around a third of Americans have guns† Which means many gun owners don’t own just one, but many.
But who are all those gun owners, I wondered. And with this simple question in mind, 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.
A short time later I was at his house to make his portrait with his entire collection.
He was proud to show me his arsenal, as a friend would show me his collection of vinyl or watches. I was amazed to see so many guns in one house. He was surprised that I didn’t own a single firearm in Italy.
A few days later I was in Texas with the same question. Within hours I had my second photo: a woman with her 30 pistols and 20 rifles.
At that point, my curiosity was certainly aroused. I wanted to understand more, to find out what’s behind this love that some Americans have for their weapons. I pitched the idea of a project to National Geographic, and with his support, I embarked on a 35-state road trip across the country with the intention of photographing, interviewing and exploring American gun culture.
The people I met came from all walks of life. They were men and women of all socio-political backgrounds – rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, straight, gay, young and old. They were all very welcoming and nice to me. In many cases, they defied the stereotypes many of us have about gun enthusiasts. Sometimes they didn’t.
As a documentary photographer, my goal was to understand gun culture in America, not to judge it. For some 230 years, the bond between Americans and firearms has become entrenched – an emotional relationship and identity. Over the years, gun culture has evolved, expanded, and strengthened. Apart 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 all over the world, especially in the US. They are a kind of cultural Rorschach test, provoking opposing and divisive actions and reactions. Each side digs in further and, unfortunately, may make a solution to America’s gun violence crisis less likely.
And whatever your feelings are about the Second Amendment, American gun violence is a crisis. The sheer tragedy of dead children accentuates this issue, but every year there are thousands upon thousands — an average of 40,000 a year — of other gun-related deaths that fail to make the headlines. These daily murders, suicides and domestic accidents have become so common that they are not really talked about anymore.
They are accepted. They are used to it.
I think my photos shock people because they show the extent to which weapons are embedded in so many everyday lives. This isn’t just about mass shootings. It’s about America’s identity. On a day meant to symbolize independence from tyranny, I hope my photos can inspire deeper reflection and perhaps change.