Guns in America

The U.S. reportedly has the highest concentration of private gun ownership in the world. It is estimated that Americans buy more than half of all the guns that are manufactured worldwide each year. We wrote a good bit about guns in Freakonomics — primarily about the lack of efficacy of gun-control laws and gun buybacks on the crime rate — and we’ve also blogged on the subject now and again.

As of 2005, Kyle Cassidy, a Philadelphia-based fashion and portrait photographer and pioneer of photo-blogging, had never owned a gun. But he wanted to learn something about the Americans who did, so he spent nearly two years traveling to 38 states in order to photograph a variety of gun owners in their homes (and, in the process, acquired his own .22 caliber target pistol). This is the subject of his new book, Armed America. Below are selected photos from the book and a Q&A we conducted with Cassidy.

Q: Looking at the book and its accompanying press material, it seems as though you came into this project anti-gun. For instance, you write: “I tried to remove ‘gun owner’ from my mind as much as possible when making the actual photograph.” How anti-gun were you, and why, and how did that change over the course of the book?

A: I really wasn’t anti-gun going into it; gun ownership was something I’d never really thought about. I didn’t think that owning a gun automatically made someone a bad person — but I did come to it from outside the gun culture. I was something of a blank slate. It was like if someone had asked me about the efficacy of labor unions in a modern workforce — I realize it’s something people feel strongly about, but it’s not something I’ve devoted any time or thought to, so I didn’t really have much of an opinion. But seeing guns definitely had an impact on me, even if the reaction was undefined.

And knowing how I reacted, and how other people would react, I tried not to think about the guns in the portraits, because I didn’t want a book about guns. I wanted a book about people. And I wanted to be able to scratch out all the guns in the images and still be able to print a book called “Americans in Their Homes,” or whatever, and still have it be interesting. There’s too much of a temptation to just stick a gun somewhere and try and make a shocking image; I really tried to pull back from that.

Q: Please tell us a bit about this photograph.

KyleCassidy1Uzi, Judi and Donno.

A: Donno and Judy were something of a breakthrough. I’d been having difficulty finding people who were willing to be photographed. I ran into Donno at a party one night and he was wearing an N.R.A. patch on his jacket. I asked, “Hey, can I photograph you in your house with your guns?” His only response was, “Can I wear my suit?”

I photographed them at about eight or nine in the evening. Their son, Uzi, was in bed. But like many children his age, when there’s a stranger in the house and mom and dad are laughing and there are strange lights, Uzi found it impossible to stay in bed. He’d peer around the corner at me, and when I turned and looked, he’d giggle and run away. Each time he’d come back a minute or so later, and venture a little farther into the room. Eventually, he dashed out in front of the camera and waved at me, then ran back to the bedroom. But while he was waving, I took one photograph. The blue of his pajamas in the otherwise red room and the happy looks on everybody’s faces — looking at it later, I knew I had a great portrait.

After that, when I told people what I was working on, I would show them that photograph and it instantly became a lot easier to get people to participate.

Q: Is his name really Uzi? Did his parents name him after seeing The Royal Tenenbaums?

A: His name really is Uzi. I didn’t ask his parents where they came up with it, but I read an interview with them in a newspaper after the book came out and they did say that he was named after a character in The Royal Tenenbaums, not after the Israeli gun designer.

Q: Were you raised around guns? Tell us about your background.

A: I was raised in semi-rural suburban New Jersey. Hunters weren’t uncommon and my father was a very occasional hunter for a few years. I went along with him, but that doesn’t really translate into currency you can use 20 years later when you’re trying to get people to pose with their guns in their houses. “I used to hunt ducks when I was a teenager” comes off sounding really condescending, I think. So I never brought it up.

I did take up target shooting when I began working on this. I’d go to the local gun range three times a week and practice like I was trying out for the Olympics. I didn’t want it to be a “fish out of water” story; I didn’t want to be naive or ignorant about something that’s incredibly important to many of the people I was photographing. I wanted to be able to have honest discussions with people and be knowledgeable, and not be some outsider peering in. That helped a lot with the project, because I was meeting people not as “some guy with a camera.” Most people at gun ranges are really gregarious, so that was really helpful in the way that trying to turn rather ghostly past experiences into some cache wouldn’t be.

Q: How did you select the portrait subjects? Did they volunteer? Did you approach them at gun clubs, or other public venues?

A: All of the above — I started out meeting people at gun clubs and it was very slow going at first. I was an unknown figure, and gun owners are rather shy. But after I’d put a portfolio together and people could look at it and see that I really was interested in finding out why people owned guns and wasn’t out to make some sort of political statement, then they started to volunteer in droves. It really snowballed. The more popular it got, the more popular it got.

Q: Tell us a good story about how you got someone to pose.

A: There wasn’t a whole lot of cajoling — at first it was mostly begging and rejection, and then it somewhat rapidly turned into an avalanche of volunteers. When you say to someone, “I’m not making a pro-gun book, but I’m not making an anti-gun book either,” that’s a lot to roll around in their heads, and it’s a pretty big leap of faith for people to make. I think it would be relatively easy to portray people in a really unflattering light. As such, they were taking a risk. One of the hunters I photographed sticks out in my mind. He was flipping through my portfolio, considering my proposal. After a lot of thoughtful examination, he looked up and said, “There are some people in here that I don’t want to be associated with.” But then he paused and added, “Though I suppose some of them might come to my house and look at all the critters hanging on the walls and think I’m the strange one.”

I think that story really captures something about the book. Lots of people, gun owners not the least, say, “There sure are some really weird people in here.” But they’re rarely talking about the same photographs. In my own West Philadelphia neighborhood, nobody looks twice at someone with pink hair, or tattoos from wrist to shoulder. But if you hang a deer head on your wall, that’s strange. In Possum Trot, Kentucky, or Carlyle, Pennsylvania, that might be reversed.

Q: Tell us about this photograph.

KyleCassidy2Brother Robb.

A: Robb emailed me saying he’d like to participate, mentioning that he’d like to be in the photo with “a gun in one hand, and a Bible in the other.” He then added that he might be “too scary” for the book. He was actually right along the route I’d already planned through Ohio, so I called and scheduled a shoot with him.

The business about the gun and the Bible and being “too scary” I found intriguing, but when I arrived I found what looked to be a perfectly ordinary college student — in this case, a seminary student studying biblical archeology. He was exceptionally articulate, cheerful, funny, and didn’t fit at all the mental image I was expecting after hearing his auto-description. (I find myself stealing his line about subcultures [“I’m from Indiana. The subculture there is not a subculture. It’s the predominant culture.”] in interviews all the time, because I think it’s a really marvelous observation.) He has a really bubbly, uplifting personality; he’s devout but not without a sense of irony. I imagine that he’s going to be the sort of clergyman who will be successful in reaching out to young people. In any event, he seemed to express his religion as being fun, rather than somber, and that peppered his conversation about guns too — guns were fun, religion was fun. I got a “life is good” vibe from him that left me kind of bouncy and energetic on the way out.

Q: How did your conception of gun owners change during the project?

A: It changed during the first two weeks of the project. I thought — or I should say, “I suspected” –that gun owners were going to be a lot more homogenous, because I really had no idea what I was going to find. I was surprised by the number of Democrats I met, and the number of people who didn’t fit the stereotype in my head. There were definitely a lot of people I met who fit comfortably into that mold, but there were people like Mike, the chef, who wanted to shoot his own Thanksgiving turkey, and James, the older man who lost his vocal cords to cancer and got a gun because he felt vulnerable, realizing that he couldn’t yell for help anymore, and Neil in New Jersey who had a functioning Civil War cannon — there were a lot of people I wasn’t expecting.

Q: Why did you choose to photograph all the gun owners standing in their homes and posing with their guns, as opposed to outside, shooting them?

A: I wanted to tell something about who gun owners were, how they lived, and what their lives were like. I think the best way to get to the bottom of that in the limited canvas of a single photograph is to put them in the surrounding they’ve created for themselves — the things they live with every day, their quilts, books, and Hummel collections. I’ve seen plenty of photos of people shooting guns — open up any gun magazine and it’s wall-to-wall photos of people outside shooting. Once you’ve seen a whole magazine of that, you pretty much have it covered. It doesn’t really tell you anything about the person.

Q: Did you suggest the location of the shot (e.g. the specific room in the house), the poses, the layouts for each person’s gun/s, etc.? Or did the subjects have the choice to decide where and how they were photographed?

A: Ninety-seven percent of the time it was my decision, maybe a bit more than that. Sometimes I got to someone’s house and they’d set up their guns in a certain place and if it looked good, I took that as a part of their personality — how meticulous they were, or what they were proud of, etc. But most of the time I’d walk around the house and pick out three or four places and we’d do several different sets of images — sometimes you really can’t tell what’s working until later, when you’re looking at the photos somewhere else. A few times people had cleaned a specific room of their house for me, but almost every time that happened, I ended up moving them to a room they hadn’t cleaned because I thought it was a more accurate and interesting portrayal.

Q: Tell us about this photograph.

KyleCassidy3Kenyatta.

A: Of all the people I photographed, there were three groups who were more difficult to convince than any others: 1) people who didn’t want their friends and neighbors to know they had guns (often liberal Democrats); 2) people who didn’t want the government to know they had guns; and 3) middle-class African Americans. This last subset often expressed an unwillingness to participate in or perpetuate a perceived stereotype that black men had guns. Kenyatta saw it from a different angle — I think he wanted to confront that stereotype, and possibly several others. He contacted me pretty late in the process after reading about the project on an Internet site for gun enthusiasts. If his wasn’t the last photograph I took for the book, it was pretty close. I knew my deadline was coming up, and because of that it was a very relaxed shoot. Kenyatta had a dog, I remember, but he figured it would be more trouble than it was worth to get him to participate, so we went without it. I seem to remember that it was a really big dog.

Q: A lot of the subjects are photographed with their dogs or cats. Did you suggest that pets be included?

A: That was me. It never occurred to me not to include them. When you take an animal into your house, you’re making a five or ten year commitment to take care of something on a daily basis. That says something about who you are. And I know that if someone came to my house and said they wanted to take a family portrait, I’d want my cat in there.

Q: Did you feel differently interacting with certain gun owners as opposed to others? Did the type of gun the subject owned (e.g. an antique pistol or hunting shotgun as opposed to a semi-automatic rifle) color your experience with him or her?

A: That usually tended to be an age demographic matter more than anything else. There were definitely people I got along with really well, and people I’d love to go back and visit. For the most part, it was just because we were a similar age and liked the same movies and whatever. I realized that people are “gun owners,” but they’re also made up of thousands of other facets. Most of them don’t sit on the sofa thinking, “Dang, I’ve got a gun.” Although, after being so immersed in it for so long, talking about guns was something I was interested in anyway, so if I got to someone’s house and they had some antique pistol I’d never seen before, I’d actually want to hear the story behind it. But camera collectors glaze my eyes over after a while, so the people that I ended up getting along with the best usually weren’t the collectors, but the people who had less of a focused interest.

Q: Did you collect any data on your subjects besides name, address, home state and type of gun owned? Were you looking for particular shared characteristics?

A: No, that was all I asked everybody. Just talking to people during the shoots, I picked up things, but I wasn’t out to do a comprehensive survey — I actually think that would have clouded things and made the book less effective.

Q: Tell us about this photograph.

KyleCassidy4James with Nicky

A: James lives next door to a couple that I photographed for the book. When I was about to leave their house, they said, “We weren’t sure about you or what you were trying to do at first, but we think you’re probably okay, so we’ll introduce you to Jim,” and they took me over to meet him. The whole portrait session was relatively brief — I was there maybe 30 minutes. A lot of people look at the photo and say, “What a sweet old man” — and though it sounds clichéd, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better description of him. Jim has cancer, he’s had his vocal chords removed and speaks with an artificial larynx, but he was happy, friendly and ebullient. He smiled the whole time I was there.

Q: How many jokes have arisen about your spending a year shooting people who shoot?

A: It’s mostly the media now — the punometer is pinned. I’ve seen newspaper headlines like, “He Shot First and Asked Questions Later,” “Disarming Photographer,” and “He Shoots Gun Owners.” Radio hosts get no amount of joy by playing “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and the theme from “The Rifleman” before they introduce me. I’m glad people are having fun with it. The New York Post just added a new one today: “Shooting Families of Every Caliber.”

Q: Tell us about one memorable conversation with a gun owner.

A: My assistant, Phil, and I were in Kentucky, finishing up a (photo) shoot, when the guy we were photographing asked, “Have you ever shot at explosives with a machine gun?” I had to admit that I never had. He took us to an outdoor gun range called Knob Creek and set up explosive targets — basically two inert powders that, when mixed, become reactive to high impacts — and he let Phil and me shoot at them with an actual fully automatic sub-machine gun — one of the very few we saw on the trip. (Machine guns are extraordinarily expensive and difficult to acquire. Submachine guns — I learned all this on the road — are machine guns that fire pistol ammunition.) When we hit the containers, there was what I must admit to be a frighteningly satisfying BOOM! and a cloud of smoke about fifteen feet across.

I got called a “Yankee” seven times while driving through the South. I thought it was odd the first time, which was in a tiny town in the middle of Texas. Then I just grew to accept it. I got the impression that it wasn’t always meant in a pejorative way; it was just a simple statement of fact. In Louisiana, a man showing us a Civil War pistol once owned by a relative paused to say thoughtfully, “I sure hope Captain So-And-So got himself some Yankees with this.”

Throughout all of this, from sea to shining sea, I realized that the word “American” encompasses an enormous amount of diversity — not just racial and ethnic, which is the way that I think people typically use the word, but philosophical, cultural, and geographical. Two Americans, separated by a thousand miles (or, in some cases, as little as a hundred miles), may think, act, and live in ways that seem worlds apart. I think the best thing that came from this whole project was that I was able to get out of the bubble that I’d been living in for most of my life and have a look back from the outside. It’s a much bigger world out there than I had ever imagined.


Sue

When I was a Young Authors Conference coordinator for our public school system I knew that Kyle was destined to make literacy milestones...and you did , Kyle! Congratulations...
The pictures are of particular interest because I am a photography nut also...and the writing is bound to be superb...can't wait to get the book! (by the way, WE have owned a gun since high school days on the farm)

c. perry

If you live in one of the rural communities you have no idea of the gun fear of the "bunny huggers". Everyone you know has guns, several guns. None of the people you know with their several guns has commited any crime with them. Why do these "bunny huggers" want our guns?
Most people in areas where hunting is popular have owned guns since an early age. When you are about twelve, your father hands you the shotgun and says "don't shoot your dog". By the time you are thirty you have at least two shotguns and two rifles. You still have not harmed anyone and neither have your friends. What are those "bunny huggers" talking about.

Michael Z. Williamson

Andrew Laurence: Did you consider the cost of living with that per capita income? As well as the social background? Or did you just focus on the money?

Kyle got photos of my wife, my daughter, my son and me right before heading for Kentucky. Typical Americans: One immigrant, one science fiction author, two veterans, two National Guard members, three shooters and a couple of cats. It turned out his assistant, like my wife, is a combat photographer (He's a Navy vet, she's Army), he liked the utter chaos of our book-packed living room. It was a most enjoyable hour.

To the readers who find their neighbors scary because of their gun ownership: SEEK SOME THERAPY.

David

This is an excellent article. Kyle's book is truly a breath of fresh air for those trying to wrap their heads around the complicated gun debate.

Stephen

He should do a follow up: "people who only have water pistols."

Larry

I never would have thought of even breaking the dust jacket of the book had I not read this article. Kyle, you got some great PR here with the Freako team. As a gun owner and competitive shooter living in Portland, Oregon I can understand the fear. I try my best not to let people know I have guns or that I reload my own ammunition, and I feel this helps me out with my neighbors. The funny thing is I took a niece shooting with her dad, and he took a picture of her shooting a semi-automatic rifle. It was a funny picture of this little blond girl smiling while firing a “black rifle”. We all thought it was all a funny picture, but true to Portland we found that pictures can mean different things to different people. Some colleagues of my brother-in-law were utterly shocked that he would allow his daughter to even tough something like that rifle let alone associate with the owner. It is for that reason that I am glad that Kyle wrote the book. People in Portland love to read, and I hope some read this book. Perhaps they will come to realize that gun owners are not just people who live in the back woods and plot against the IRS but come to understand that we are the nice neighbor that you talk to everyday and have no clue that they own guns.

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Heidi

Hey Kyle, this is your cousin! Great interview, I can't wait to read your book. It will be so refreshing to read about this topic without any sort of political spin. Hope things are going well for you!

MT

That was a really good post. Thanks to Kyle for contributing to our better understanding of our nation. I especially appreciate the last paragraph that diversity isn't just about accepting certain media-approved non-white-male-heterosexual categories of citizens, but about defeating stererotyping on all fronts and recognizing that, to be genuine, it has to encompass philosophical, georgrahical and cultural differences as well.

I should note that my family is a victim of handgun violence and that I contribute to anti-hand-gun organizations. But I respect the right of others to have their own perspective on the issue.

Cliff

Really interesting. I'm going to pick that book up.

Susan Jacobson

I LOVE ROSWELL!

Aaron

"Is it statistically true that if you have a gun in your house and that gun actually shoots somebody, it is almost a sure thing it will be a family member or friend?"

I'm not Mr. Freakonomist, but I felt compelled to point out that that study may be statistically accurate, but it depends on a false premise: The data collected does not indicate that gunowners *use* their firearms to stop crimes. Simply making the show of force is generally sufficient to cause an intruder or attacker to flee.

So, the data may be accurate, but it's intentionally misleading.

As for the Palestinians, there are too many stories of knife-fights breaking out between Fatah and Hamas Youth groups, arsons, etc, to even try to associate the problem with gun ownership. They simply *want* to kill each other.

Mark Cook

Chris writes, "According to the different articles in the Economist published over the last few weeks, there is a higher penetration of gun ownership than cell phone ownership in the US. I don't find that statistic reassuring in the least. In fact I find it downright scary." I think you should wait until cell phones have been around as long as firearms before you concern yourself with the ownership ratios. Also, I don't recall ever hearing (or reading) a story about someone attempting to defend themselves with a cell phone against an attacker, so the comparison is really "apples & oranges" isn't it? On the other hand, if the comparison IS valid, let's measure ownership of wallets and wristwatches against guns, and see how they stack up.

Kyle, thank you so much for letting Lori and I participate in your ground-breaking book. FYI, your copy of the London Sunday Times issue that covers your book is currently in transit from the U.K.!

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Jeffrey Horn

"The U.S. reportedly has the highest concentration of private gun ownership in the world."

So the fact that every male in Sweden owns a military issue weapon doesn't come into play?

a) Because only Swedish men are required to own guns?
b) Because the concentration of gun ownership includes owners with multiple guns?
c) Because Swedish arms are issued by the military and do not count toward private ownership, even though they are stored and maintained in those men's homes?

Intriguing nonetheless.

Arnie Tracey

Dear Mr. Horn,

Why are you pontificating about things about which you are ignorant?

According to Swedish law, it is prohibited to possess and use firearms without a special permission (license), which is given only after a detailed personal investigation. This restrictive legislation accounts for the fact that deaths due to firearms in Sweden are rare in an international comparison. The number of accidental firearm fatalities in Sweden is 0.074/100,000 living persons. We have previously published a series of accidental firearm fatalities during hunting, and now we present an investigation on the non-hunting fatalities. The mean age of the victims was 27 years, and males predominated. Handguns, military rifles, and shotguns caused most of the accidents. The first published case of fatal thoracic airgun wound is also included. Slightly more than half of the accidents were caused by another person and were inflicted at close range. Unsafe handling of the guns, especially "playing" with the gun or during military training caused most of the accidents. It is doubtful that one could further decrease the low number of fatal firearm accidents in Sweden by even more restrictive legislation. Instead, it is concluded that the most important factor to stress is the safer handling of weapons.

Get your facts straight.

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James

Hi; Kyle has done America a great justice. haveing this work published puts a lot of us in a differant perspective. As gun owners we are not out to shoot anything, and everything. Most gun owners have families, hold responsible jobs, and are god fearing Americans.
Yes I lost my voice to cancer, and I don't intend to go out and shoot all of the tobaco growers for my stupidy.
I just needed to feel, that my wife, and children know I care enough to think of there protection.
James;
PS:
My 17year old dogs name is Nikita!

Mrs. Robinson

Shorter Jeffrey:

Sweden, Switzerland -- it's all somewhere in Europe, right?

Fascinating interview. Thanks.

TheFeshy

"Is it statistically true that if you have a gun in your house and that gun actually [is used to] shoot somebody, it is almost a sure thing it will be a family member or friend?"

That is because a very significant percentage (typically about 2/3) of gun deaths are suicides. The gun owner himself is counted as a "family member" in those cases as well.

This was a fascinating interview.

Sharpedge

I owned a gun shop in New York, outside of NYC in a very affluent area, Rockland County. There is an entire sub culture and economy of gun people all across the U.S. that should not surprise anyone or require a photo blog to expose. I am surprised that the ink and paper was wasted on an article but very happy to see that the closet gun owners pictured now give credility to the NRA and gun ownership. Your Second Amendment rights are as sacred as any of the Amendments, who would not fight for keeping the Fourth Amendment? If guns kill people, then spoons made Rosie O'Donnell fat. BTW, there is a direct correlation in gun ownership, watches, pens and hi-grade knives. Why? They are precision made instruments that are collectible. I live in Florida and it is legal to shoot when you are in fear of your life, OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. You can carry a gun in your car with three movements to get to it and a concealed carry license is a must issue within 30 days if you have no felony record. It also is a State which has legalized switchblades, spring loaded to open knives. Wake up America, although guns allow you to feel safe, it is a false sense of security as seen in Waco and Ruby Ridge. The Feds have bigger guns. Also, the Knob Creek Machine Gun shoot is held every year and auto weapons are NOT expensive, although the 200.00 tax on them is used to track the extra paperwork. Are Uzis in Israeli homes leading to mass murders? Even Iraqis are allowed the most dangerous auto weapon made, the AK-47 automatic. Do your self a favor, go to 1 Police Plaza, License Division, and get a permit for a premises license. I guarantee that you will sleep better and the first sign of civil unrest will be less harsh on you since you can protect yourself.
Sharpedge

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Crtaig

I am Aussie from Melbourne Austrlia, and saw on the news about a 14 yo shooting himself and injuring 5 others today. I does not seen long that there was that other tragic shooting at that school, where many people died. I don't want to sound like a hypocrite, we in Australia have had mass shootings the Port Arthur Massacre 21st of November 1984,a shocking event when 35 people where shot dead. This event made the federal government introduce even more strict gun laws, a national buy back scheme, uniform gun laws across all states and territorys. Our guns laws are very tough handguns are banned, and i think this is good thing and they should be tougher. It seems that its is to easy to buy guns in America, and there should be better education in regards to guns and any other weapon. Less guns in society means less deaths from guns. i do not want to live in a society where i feel i need to have a gun to be safe, if that happens it is time to move. I a not sure how your politcal systems work, but the gun lobby there seems to have far to much power, why don't people demand the government makes changes to restrict gun ownership and thus change the culture.

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Craig

re me last post, America is not the centre of the universe, and some Americans need to wake up to the world outside of America.