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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.


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.