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Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Always be ready for that perfect photo, a remarkable shot that stops people on the page and tells a dramatic story.

It is March 14th, 2011. I live in Tucson, Arizona. Just two months ago on January 8th, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others are shot by a mentally ill man at a strip mall about nine miles north of this bus stop. The President of the United States visits Tucson four days later on January 12th for a memorial service to the victims. I attend his speech in person. He makes an impassioned plea for a review of gun laws.

The argument about gun laws in the United States is raging. There are very few laws governing gun ownership in Arizona. If you want to carry a gun, you simply strap it on your hip.  There is a dangerous border crossing with Mexico to the south, and drug trafficking is widespread. Tucson truly is the “wild west”.

I don’t own a car in Tucson so I either commute by bus or ride my bike. I worked late tonight so I am taking the bus home. Tucson has no street lights. Riding after dark can be dangerous.

This bus stop is crowded. Another bus has just dropped off passengers making a transfer. Civilian employees from the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are leaving work. There is also a secondary vocational training facility at this intersection that has just let out.

A man in a dark grey hooded sweatshirt is carrying a backpack. He is accompanied by a child. He seems nervous and fidgety. He keeps looking for the bus to come, but there are at least ten minutes until its scheduled stop. He removes his backpack, places it on the bus stop bench and pulls a cell phone out of the open pack. He tells the girl to sit on the bench, steps toward the curb and begins texting.

Suddenly the girl is holding an automatic pistol on him. A red spot of laser light- from the pistol’s aiming device- appears exactly center-mass on the man. He does not see the girl is pointing a gun at him.

Her finger is on the trigger.

The gun may be a toy. It may not be. Having a real laser sight on it suggests it is not a toy. It is heavy because the little girl has a difficult time handling it.

I raise my Apple iPhone and shoot one photo. You see that photo here.

There is a panic when the man looks up, a woman next to the girl recoils in stunned reaction. The man wheels and crouches away from the red laser dot, then advances toward the little girl, scooping the gun away from her.

I retreat back across the street to a convenience store as voices are raised. I am not sure if anyone saw me shoot the photo, and, I would prefer not to be shot.

My photo runs in a CNN article about gun control. It is widely circulated on social media, seen by millions of people. the debate about gun laws rages on in the United States.

Years ago I read a National Geographic book about photojournalism. It showed Robert Capa’s famous D-Day photos, blurry and indistinct. The book used those examples of how the technical merits of a photo are sometimes secondary to the subject matter. That book was why I decided to shoot this photo with my phone. Because, while that real or toy gun at a Tucson bus stop scared a few people, my smartphone snapshot scared millions.

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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A New York Post photo shows activity at a local gun show.

Smith & Wesson, up 142%, Ruger Firearms, up 69%, Vista Outdoor (parent to Federal Ammunition, Savage Firearms, Bushnell optics and Camelbak) up 13%.

There is an axiom that Americans vote with their dollars, and the votes are in: Americans love their guns. They are buying more guns now than at any time in history. Why?

Despite fervent debate over gun law reform and national outrage about mass shootings the American reverence for firearms is not just continuing, it is growing. Here are some reasons why:

1. Firearms Symbolize our Defiance and Liberty.

From the pilgrims to the American Revolution, world wars, defiance of banks in the depression, and the emergence of equal rights the appearance of guns in our social and political landscape sends a clear message; Americans are willing to kill and die for liberty and equality.

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A 1964 photo of American civil rights activist Malcom X with a .30 calibre carbine and two 30-round magazines. Some Americans believe private firearms ownership is the last resort deterrent to government oppression and tyranny.

Our decisions about gun laws also say we’ll accept some “collateral damage” in the continuance of freedom. The unflattering reality of U.S. culture is that if we are willing to send our daughters and sons to war in the defense of freedom, we are also willing to let our sons and daughters die in classroom shootings in that same preservation. That’s an ugly reality, but America’s behavior confirms it as reality.

For some Americans, gun ownership is a “last resort” to maintain a voice in their own destiny, even if that voice is heard over gunsmoke and spilled blood. Exactly the same ethos exists in the Arab Spring. You’ve likely heard the colloquialism, “God created man, but Samuel Colt and Mikhail Kalashnikov made him equal.”

The rising volume of gun ownership in America could be an ominous portend- not about guns, but about our culture. Americans are hedging against some frightening outcome, real or imagined. It’s a sad commentary on our social condition if we feel we must resort to self-armament rather than democracy to guide our future.

James Hagerman poses with a .12 gauge shotgun in his Fort Collins home on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Sporting shooter James Hagerman poses with a .12 gauge shotgun in his Fort Collins home. Aaron Ontiveroz photo via The Denver Post

A significant motive for gun ownership is sporting, recreational or some other discretionary motive. The increase in gun sales is like buying anything before it may become difficult to obtain, like coins or stamps. This is an honorable and reasonable motive.

While our reverence for guns symbolize our attachment to freedom and liberty they also acknowledge our inability to move forward from ways of thinking we formed when gunpowder was invented in the 9th century.

In a perfect world we would own guns peacefully, target shoot, hunt and compete without gun crime. Not by rule of law, but by collective moral conscience. Despite recent sensational mass shootings most gun crime statistics do suggest a downward trend in gun crime. That is better news for gun owners- and our society.

2. Shooting is a Rite of Passage.

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Learning to shoot is a rite of passage into adulthood for some. One of the first, and most solemn, responsibilities bestowed on young men and women. When I was 11 my Uncle Norb, Indiana Pistol Shot Champion, taught me the three rules of firearms safety. He made me practice with an unloaded rifle. The next day he handed me my first live bullets. The implication was clear, “You are old enough and responsible enough to use a gun safely.” It was a solemn and respectful passage to adult responsibility.

Later, in the U.S. Army, my shooting heritage helped me learn combat marksmanship quickly and I excelled at it. It was another rite of passage to qualify with various firearms, small and large. As each successively advanced qualification was earned it became a greater and greater responsibility, not just to myself, but also as a soldier sworn to protect the U.S. Constitution.

3. We Value Personal Liberty and Responsibility Above All Other Values.

Personal responsibility is a part of out National DNA, and the reason for the NRA. It is foundational to our country. Individual gun ownership is about more than shooting or owning guns to Americans. It is a last bastion of personal responsibility; a “line in the sand” between deciding our own destiny or having it administered by elected officials that some people believe are increasingly disconnected from their constituency.

4. It’s Human Nature to Place Significance on the Forbidden.

Some people have no real need for a gun, but are caught up in the sensationalism that surrounds gun ownership now. They go to a gun shop and buy a gun, perhaps not truly understanding the significance of firearms ownership. Hopefully this group will practice good firearms safety, get training to safely use their firearm and remain current in that training.

5. Before It Was a Political Controversy, Gun Ownership Was A Pastoral Affair.

Our image, real or fabricated, of the American gun owner has shifted from sportsman, hunter and target shooter to right-leaning curmudgeon and self-appointed vigilante. Like most arguments the reality spans the entire spectrum between those extremes- with mostly middle ground.

Guns used to be mostly sporting equipment. Today they are viewed increasingly as weapons. While they are both, this shift in perspective is due to worldwide conflict and crime, and also a propensity of mainstream media to report on war and crime.

Millions of older Americans became familiar with guns and shooting during the World Wars. Having developed proficiency and comfort with firearms in a military context, the transition to a sporting context in civilian life was part of post-WWII America.

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U.S. Army veteran, top competitive shooter, hunter and mother Julie Golob has been a voice of reason in the gun debate, but a voice that has received little attention in sensational mainstream media. Photo: Smith & Wesson.

Today the media does not report on Olympic shooting sports, safe hunting classes and stories about responsible gun owners. A more accurate look at the American gun owner is Smith & Wesson athlete Julie Golob. Golob is the reference American gun owner. She is a veteran, competitive shooter, a sportswoman, hunter and a mother and wife. Golob is the model for the American shooting sportsperson. She is vocal, responsible, educated and eloquent. But it is an uphill battle for a person like Golob. Her moderate perspective takes on an increasingly reactionary anti-gun lobby, the majority of whom have no idea what responsible gun ownership means or the role it plays in American culture. Golob’s primary mouthpiece has been social media like Facebook. Her message is successful and effective on that channel but seldom transitions to mass television news media, mostly because a responsible person teaching safe shooting isn’t good headline fodder.

It isn’t guns that have changed as much as it is society. Our society may be less responsible and is more communicative. Society feels more reactive and less contemplative. The collective voice seems larger while the independent will seems smaller.

6. Most of Our Society is Ignorant About Gun Ownership.

We are desensitized to violence through media. Violence enacted by “heroes” is a quick, profitable plotline for popular media from James Bond to Tom Clancy. Most Americans experience gun use in romanticized Hollywood film clips or gaming. They are detached from the responsibility of firearms ownership and the true role of guns in society. Popular media seldom depicts responsible civilian gun use partially because it is no more sensational than using power tools.

The truth about gun ownership in the United States is obscured by the circular, unwinnable arguments emanating from either extreme. There is a middle ground in the firearms debate, and that is likely where the majority of Americans reside, even if they aren’t vocal about it in social media. It’s likely this middle ground is what will drive our country’s firearms heritage forward.

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Both sides of the gun violence issue will need to learn to evolve to make progress.

The gun law debate typifies the very worst of our system. Gridlock. Misinformation. Murder and fear. The debate has been shamelessly exploited and distorted by both sides of the issue. Neither side has made progress to a better way. And as the gridlock continues, people die. Our first move to address gun violence has to be compromise by both sides of the argument from their current positions. Until then, nothing will change.

I’m a gun owner and a victim of gun violence. I see both sides of the gun argument in America. I’ve also travelled the world and seen how gun laws work and don’t work from Tanzania to Toronto. I believe there is a better way. This is not it.

The gun lobby has stonewalled. Their doctrine seems to be one of rigidity rather than progression. I’m a gun owner, former military, from a family of gun owners and NRA members. I’m here to tell you that the gun lobby’s lack of willingness to adapt has contributed to the “plight” of the American gun owner and likely even contributed to the proliferation of gun violence. At a minimum the gun lobby’s position hasn’t helped build a constructive future for lawful firearms owners. Instead it has made the divide between NRA and the gun-control lobby wider. That position can’t be sustained. The gun-control lobby has a very well defined target to come after in the current, non-progressive, non-adaptive gun rights lobby.

The gun control lobby is no better. Championed by a vocal populace they have, like the pro-gun crowd, distorted statistics to bolster their argument to such a degree that neither side can be believed. The gun control lobby stonewalls also, believing a finite set of specific new (old?) gun laws will eventually stem the proliferation of gun violence. They might be right. They might not. And abridging current laws is an amputation. Amputations aren’t preventative medicine. The crowd that espouses background checks, mental health checks, “assault” weapon bans and other a la carte legislation are hitting the drive-thru at the fast food legislation restaurant. It’s a shiny, conspicuous quick “fix” that soothes the conscience. As I say, it may work. A little. But to suggest any part of the gun violence problem is dependent on any one factor is foolhardy and short sighted. And to press the agenda of conspicuous legislation against certain classes of weapons and certain purchase processes is equally short sighted.

An editorial in the The New Yorker framed the debate perfectly, albeit unintentionally. Writer Nick Traverse said, “despite popular support” the Senate voted down every gun control measure being considered. He went on to say the two largest publicly traded gun manufacturers in the United States had increased their market capitalization by “552%” since President Obama took office. So, if the majority of Americans support gun control, who bought so many guns that the big gun companies are worth 5.5 times as much as they were our current President was first elected?

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Any front page news photo reinforces how things have changed since our original gun laws were drafted. That change reinforces the arguments of each agenda, meaning the responsibility for moderation rests with compromise, not inaction or stonewalling.

What is the solution?

First, we need to move toward middle ground.

The gun lobby would do well to acknowledge that, when the bulk of our current gun ownership rights were drafted it was illegal for women to vote and legal to keep slaves. In almost every other area of legislation that governs social conduct there has been progression and adaptation. Except gun ownership. Despite the fact that society and weapons technology has changed massively from when the bulk of current gun ownership laws were drafted we haven’t evolved the laws that govern either. If the gun lobby had been more  progressive and proactive about safeguarding weapons ownership and society at large, they wouldn’t be in the legislative bull’s-eye right now. For the gun lobby, acknowledging there is a need for adaptation of gun regulation is a start.

The gun control lobby needs to refocus on being a violence control lobby and not be so “scope-locked” on pushing through ineffectual legislation that only addresses the most sensational and conspicuous aspects of gun violence. When the focus changes from being gun-control/magazine capacity control/assault weapon control/background check control to a more omnipotent review of mental health, education, public safety and law enforcement reform then they will make meaningful progress toward reducing gun violence. Until then they aren’t even grabbing low hanging fruit, they are picking up the rotten fruit that fell from the tree years ago and wasn’t that good then.

There is a lot to gain from being the first group to vault the stone wall. If the NRA proposed changes to legislation that addressed the hotpoints like background checks and mental health verification they would be seen as being progressive and pro-active instead of inflexible and puritanical. If the gun control lobby backed off the agenda of regulating conspicuously sensational weapons in the belief that will somehow have meaningful impact on the bulk of gun violence they would not only appear to be wiser- they would be. If both things happened the acceleration toward a middle ground would begin, and our collective futures, gun owner or not, would become safer.

I don’t pretend to offer the full list of solutions, only a thematic direction. That theme is to adopt change to reduce violence. It took a long time for the problem to become this significant. It is like a complex social cancer that has metastasized a little into every cell. It won’t be cured with an amputation or series of amputations, but by a cooperative, adaptive and regenerative approach with a concern for society rather than specific agendas.

For both the gun control and gun ownership lobby there is one certainty: Neither side can afford to do nothing