Gun Nation Revisited: Zed Nelson's Photographs of American Gun Culture

4 minute read

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?”

Nelson's photographs originally appeared in the July 6, 1998 issue of TIME

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.

A Smith & Wesson .44 magnum handgun, popularized by the film 'Dirty Harry' starring Clint Eastwood. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Born-again Christians John and Kaywin LeNoue. "In the Ten Commandments the actual Hebrew is not 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.' It is in fact, 'Thou Shalt Not Murder.' So this, as far as we're concerned, is self defence." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
The aftermath of a chest gunshot wound treated in Emergency Room 1 at the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center in Memphis. Paramedic Patricia Artella, from the ambulance radio communications room, says, "Have you ever seen them crack a chest? It's like a hog slaughter; blood on the walls, blood on the ceiling, half inch thick on the floor..." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Sergeant Michael Rallins of Memphis Police Firearms Center, with weapons confiscated from streets and homes of Memphis residents. "We've seen just about everything... M-16 assault rifles, AR-15's semi-auto's, hunting rifles with home-made silencers, even an Armalite 5.56 Nato calibre assault rifles. These guns could have been used by anyone from petty criminals to big-time drug dealers... they could have been used in robberies, domestics and homicides." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Local sign in Columbine, Colo. in response to the tragic Columbine High School shooting. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
A Selection of high-velocity assault rifles on display in Paladin Arms gunstore in Longmont, Colo., shortly after the massacre at nearby Columbine High School. These are available over-the-counter to anyone over the age of 18, under Colorado State law. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Sarah Read, 10, at Top Brass Sports Inc. gun store. "I got a 410 shotgun form Santa Claus last year." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Ammunition on sale at a Las Vegas gun store. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Mike, father and gun owner. "It's my constitutional right to own a gun and protect my family." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
A sign advertising pre-ban Armalite assault-style weapons at B&B's gun store in Los Angeles. B&B's sales increased following the widely-publicized North Hollywood shootout, where Los Angeles police officers were outgunned by two heavily armed bank robbers protected by body-armour. A group of LAPD officers rushed from the siege to B&B's gunstore, borrowing M-16 assault rifles and pump-action shotguns with hundreds of rounds of ammunition before returning to the crime scene and killing the besieged robbers with the unofficial firearms. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Bodies in the cold storage room of Memphis City Morgue. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Pro-gun bumper-stickers in Las Vegas. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
"It's not necessarily a man-stopper, but I sure wouldn't wanna be shot with it." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
America's ammunition of choice: the hollow-point, designed to maximize damage by fragmenting and 'mushrooming' on impact. These bullets are banned from use in war by the Geneva Convention. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Machine guns for rent at a gun store in Los Angeles. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
A John Wayne cut-out sign outside a firing range and gun shop in Las Vegas. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Jack Cone, 45, with sons Andrew, 10, and Tanner, 12, at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual convention and gun show in Dallas. "Tanner first fired a gun aged 3. He now owns a 243 Ruger rifle, a Remington 58 and a 20-guage automatic shotgun. Andrew has a Browning Rifle, a Remington pump-action shotgun and a Swedish military rifle. I've got about 50 guns. The real problem is the minorities who have guns—they cause the problems." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
A bullet hole in a car windscreen. The owner of the vehicle saw two young men attempting to steal his car from his driveway. He opened fire on them from his lounge with a high-velocity deer-hunting rifle, killing one man and wounding the other. Police valued the car at $900. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Memphis housewives meet and compare recently purchased weapons. Susan Wilson (center), 44, says, "I'll be carrying a 9mm semi-automatic from now on. Things are getting dangerous out there. I hope and pray that the person I shoot doesn't die. That'd be great, but I'm goin' to shoot so that I don't die." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
The body of a female gunshot victim in the cold storage room of Memphis City Morgue. A high proportion of women wounded or killed by gunfire are shot in their own homes during domestic arguments. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
An X-ray of the skull from a suicide death by a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Gina Taylor, a trauma nurse clinician at Dallas Parkland Hospital says: "We had a rash of men trying to blow their heads off with rifles, but what they didn't account for was the kick of the gun, so when they shot, basically all it did was blow their face off." Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Kalashnikov AK-47 40-round ammunition magazines. In response to restrictions applied to certain assualt weapons and accessories designed for rapid fire shooting and mass destruction, gun salesmen throughout the U.S. are beating the ban by selling 'pre-ban' manufactured or 'second hand' items, both of which remain excluded form control legislation. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
A family visits B&B's gunstore in Los Angeles to buy an AR-15 assault-style rifle for home protection. The AR-15 high-velocity semi-automatic rifle is a modified version of the restricted M-16 fully automatic assualt rifle, designed for close-combat by U.S. military, used to deadly effect in the Vietnam War. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
The day after the massacre, Columbine High School students gather outside their school to pray and place flowers on the ground. Many just wander among the tributes crying, trying to make sense of what has happened. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Columbine High School shooting victim John Tomlin Jr.'s pick-up truck in the school parking lot. He parked his truck the morning of April 20, 1999, and never returned to pick it up. The following day people began to lay flowers and notes on it. In the days following the tragedy the family visited the truck, and sat in the cab and cried, and left their own flowers and messages, trying to make sense of their sudden and unexpected loss. It was still there ten days later, piled high with wilting flowers. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), addresses a crowd of 2,000 pro-gun members at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Denver, while outside 8,000 demonstrators encircle the hotel to protest the timing of the NRA's annual meeting in the area only ten days after the local Columbine High School shooting rampage. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE
Paramedics struggle to repair a gunshot wound to the thigh of Daniel Green, 21, at 11:50 pm on a Saturday night. He was shot with .45 calibre handgun by a friend after a drunken argument. Zed Nelson—INSTITUTE

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