Nancy Floyd, Eleven-year-old Vanessa Noble with 9mm Ruger P89, On Target Shooting Range, Laguna Niguel, California 1996

This kid could be me.

“American Epidemic: Guns in the United States,” which opened last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, includes Nancy Floyd’s She’s Got a Gun—a series of portraits of gun-toting women with short wall text quotes from interviews with them.

One is a smiling 11-year-old target shooter with her finger on the trigger of a 9mm pistol. She says “Lindsay,” six years old and presumably her sister, is shooting a .22. They love it.

I can relate, sort of. I got my own .22 when I was nine. But it wasn’t only for target practice. Like many men of his generation, my father hunted for sport. The prey were wild things—pheasants and deer. We flushed birds from autumn cornfields so that humans with guns could attempt to blow their brains out.  

Don’t call it gun violence. Guns are always violent.

And it’s always hunting season in Chicago. So far this year, more than 3,000 people have been shot in the city; last weekend alone, according to the Chicago Police Department, there were 40 shooting incidents and 60 firearm victims.

MoCP curator Karen Irvine says the museum team has been actively working on this exhibit for more than three years, but had the subject on their to-do list for much longer. “We have a social justice-focused mission,” she told me, and COVID-19 has made it even more pressing: “People are compiling arsenals now; gun sales are up.”

Image of a gun in a toy box with painting of baby in the inside lid
Baby’s First Gun, 1998 Credit: Renée Stout, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Photography

Irvine’s exhibit essay cites some of the stunning statistics: Guns kill about 40,000 Americans every year, and are the weapon employed in 73 percent of American homicides. While research shows that “the very presence of a gun” increases the risk of gun injury (including accidents and suicides), the U.S. leads the world in private gun ownership, “with approximately 120 firearms per 100 residents.” That’s more than 100 percent higher than the runners-up, violence-torn Yemen and Serbia.

Behind the statistics, Irvine notes, is a national love affair with guns that began in the colonial period and runs through cowboy movies and concepts of masculinity, to manifest in current ideologies of individual freedom and lax control laws—in spite of the fact that, for example, “the average firearm homicide rate in states without background checks is 58 percent higher than the average in states with background checks in place.”

The rationale for this mayhem is an anachronistic one-sentence amendment to the Constitution, written before the existence of a standing national army and intended to ensure that the nation would have an equipped military force if it needed one. Here is the Second Amendment, in its entirety: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The gun lobby and the National Rifle Association, both funded by the gun industry, want you to believe that this sentence gives just about any American the right to walk into a coffee shop or grocery store, or cruise a city street, packing.

“American Epidemic: Guns in the United States 
Through 2/20/22, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago, 600 S. Michigan. Free; masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required; reservations recommended;

The MoCP show features work by ten artists, most of it dependent on text or context for impact. It ranges from a quilt made of fabric squares cut from old police officers’ uniforms (Carolyn Drake’s One thousand and four Americans were killed by police officers in 2019) to a stop-action video that has G.I. Joe figures reenacting an actual murder (Winter in America, by Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi). The most powerful piece is Stephen Foster’s Libation, a video tribute to Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, an 11-year-old Chicago gang shooting victim, with a soundtrack of Sandifer’s grandmother’s searing, visceral screams at his funeral.

Also powerful: Andres Gonzalez’s booklet of four presidential speeches related to four mass murders at schools (an addition to his American Origami project). The murders span a 20-year period, from 1999 to 2018, but the presidents all say essentially the same thing: “let go of hate,” “overcome evil with good,” “I come to offer love and prayers.” Meanwhile nothing changes. We can’t even get a national assault weapon ban reinstated, or a director appointed at the national Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Nothing we’ve been doing for the last 20 years and more has worked, which gives rise to a question: Why not just get rid of guns? Why not make them, like other destructive explosive devices, illegal?

I put that question to Vanderbilt University professor and psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, who’ll lecture at the museum October 6. His 2019 book, Dying of Whiteness, explores how racism figures into the gun control debate and has driven middle America whites to vote for politicians and policies that actually work against their own interests. He wasn’t encouraging. “Guns represent freedom and liberty for a lot of people; these attitudes are hardwired,” he said. The chances we’ll get rid of guns right now? “Zero. Sad but true.”  

UIC professor emeritus and criminologist John Hagedorn also told me that eliminating guns now is “a bridge too far.” Though if we could, he said, the homicide rate, in some Chicago neighborhoods among the highest in the world, would drop drastically.

Both of these experts see a parallel in issues around COVID. “People think telling them to wear a mask infringes their rights,” Hagedorn says. “They say, ‘You want to make me wear a mask today, and you’re going to come and take my guns away tomorrow.’ It’s an incredibly individualist culture where ‘my rights trump your right to live.’

“But the pandemic is raising these cultural issues across the country. People are seeing how bizarre that is. Your rights don’t mean you can take my rights away, take my life away. It really is analogous. There‘s some hope in that.”