Years ago, someone shot my friend and tried to shoot me. The experience compelled me to travel across America documenting the carnage created by the estimated 270 million guns in circulation nationwide.
Over a two-year period I encountered scenes both bloody and harrowing: hospital emergency rooms, morgues and the confused aftermaths of random shooting sprees. After every new massacre, the newspaper headlines were always the same: “We thought we were the safest place in America.”
The headlines are always followed by psychological profiles of the gunman, along with portraits of the victims and endless memorial services. And always the same bewildered question, “Why did it happen here?”
On hearing news reports of another recent horror—the bloody shooting rampage in a cinema in Denver on July 20, I felt a depressing sense of deja-vu. A decade after first documenting America’s obsession with firearms, this latest atrocity seemed all too familiar.
Then another mass shooting, only two weeks after, on Aug. 5. This time a crazed gunman (male, as usual) with a semi-automatic handgun shot six people dead at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
What is most disturbing about the 13 years that have elapsed since my immersion into American gun culture is that nothing has changed, nothing has improved. In fact, the laws controlling the trade and ownership of guns have actually gotten weaker. The national federal ban on assault weapons has expired, and Wisconsin, joining many other U.S. states, passed a law in 2011 allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons.
In 1999 I visited Columbine, Colo., in the immediate aftermath of a school shooting rampage by two teenage pupils armed with a variety of deadly weapons. They killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, and left a community reeling in shock. At that time, witnessing groups of weeping children, floral tributes and candle-lit vigils, I thought surely this obscene event would be a catalyst to change America’s deadly love affair with the gun. Surely the time had come when public opinion would demand a strengthening of U.S. gun laws, a tightening of controls.
The local newspapers were full of shock, rage and sympathy, but on the back pages in the classified ads there were more guns for sale, freely available without permits or background checks. Gun shops opened for business as usual and people continued to sell weapons from the back of their cars at flea markets and over the Internet.
The full scale of America’s Catch-22 could be seen in the nearby city of Denver, just days after the Columbine High School massacre, when the staunchly pro-gun National Rifle Association (NRA) annual convention took place in the very same city. This, combined with suggestions from local and national commentators that tragedies like Columbine could be prevented if teachers were armed, goes to show how complicated and contradictory the gun debate really is.
This summer, Denver was in the news again, reeling in the aftermath of its latest gun massacre. This time a 24-year-old opened fire at a packed cinema showing the new Batman movie, killing 12 people and injuring 58 more. Prior to the shooting, the killer was reported to have amassed a terrifying arsenal of four guns, 6,000 rounds of ammunition and sophisticated bullet-proof armour, without breaking a single law. All his purchases, both in person at a gun store and via the Internet, appear to have been legal, including buying a 100-bullet magazine for his semi-automatic military assault rifle.
Some argue that there is no link between the proliferation and the easy availability of firearms and the huge annual death toll. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that heavily armed young men massacring innocent people has become a too-common feature of contemporary American life.
Zed Nelson is a London-based photographer. See more of his work here.