The other day I was walking downtown with three of my co-workers, having a lively conversation. As we approached a corner, a man came around it and drew from a bag a very large chainsaw. Without acknowledging us, he bent over, cradled the chainsaw between his knees, and began fiddling with it.
Needless to say, our conversation suddenly became less lively.
We passed by him silently, and he made whatever adjustments were needed, stowed the chainsaw back in the bag, and went on his way. We all looked at each other, and said, “That was weird,” and went on our way. In a moment, we’d forgotten all about it.
I remembered it yesterday as I was standing outside the Land of Sky Gun and Knife Show at the WNC Agricultural Center, and I had this thought: All public mass killings start that way. Someone walks into a space where everyone feels safe and produces a weapon. I bet the beginnings of most mass killings are very similar to the moment I had with my co-workers. You feel fear, but not enough to break social norms and propel you into action. At least, not until it’s too late.
I didn’t go inside the controversial show, which some on city council want to ban, and at which the Asheville Tea Party planned to raffle away a AR-15 rifle in a publicity stunt that has gained national attention in the wake of recent events. The line was 100 yards long, and, according to AccuWeather, the temperature was 33 degrees. Cameras are prohibited at such events. So I shot some photos of the crowd, which was bristling with long-arms, and went home, bringing "lazy journalism" to a whole new level.
I half-heartedly went to the gun show (which, by the way, drew record crowds) to try to get a grip on local gun owners and the crisis they feel they are facing, but I knew it was a fool's errand. The issue can't be wrapped up by covering a single event. Every gun owner is unique, and each has complex motives for self-armament. Some support more controls, some don’t. Some are troubled by the dramatic upheaval in the firearms industry and looming legislation. Some couldn’t care less. The same is true of gun control advocates: Some want to see a total ban, some really do want to preserve the rights protected by the Second Amendment.
But, like a good sensational journalist, I advocate ignoring the gray areas: Right-wing gun nuts cling to their guns and religion, and commie gun grabbers want to disarm the populace. That's what we all want to talk about, right? What fun is admitting that the other side might be composed of well-meaning people just like us?
I grew up in Burnsville, N.C. Guns were everywhere. Chainsaws, too. Most stores that sold one also sold the other, and owning one was about as innocuous as owning the other. Guns and chainsaws were tools to be respected, but not feared. It wasn’t until I got to college and began pursuing my liberal arts degree that I realized most of the world doesn’t have that attitude.
In a sociology class, I proposed a paper on gun ownership. The professor gave me the green light, but it was very clear that she expected the paper to illustrate “how dangerous it is to have those things around.” I decided to write the paper on something else. But doubt had been planted: Was I in danger? Was I dangerous?
I began to investigate in the best way I knew: photojournalism at the local shooting range. In one high-level photography class, after showing my photos, I was asked by another student how long I had been “documenting the white race.” My instructor said my photos were a good peek into “gun culture.”
These comments mystified me — and, frankly, hurt my feelings. I knew that I had no ill intentions as a gun owner, and neither did my friends. I felt that my peers were judging me to be a bad person, or, at the very least, part of a bad “culture.” Was I?
To find out, I intensified my project. I wanted answers. These photos were shot over several years, in lots of different places, with lots of different people:
Can't see the slideshow? Click here.
What did I learn? Nothing conclusive. I spent years on this body of work, but I can’t point to any of those photos and prove which side is right. No, guns don’t kill people. Yes, they do make it easier. But then, so do chainsaws.
I did learn that we’re all afraid of each other. Gun-grabbers say gun-nuts live in fear; gun-nuts say gun-grabbers fear guns. Both sides think they are reasonable and safety-conscious, and that the other side is sinister and unbalanced.
So as we “have a national conversation” (yell at each other) and “engage in dialogue” (reinforce stereotypes) in the wake of mass murder, and as we have a local conversation about the Asheville Gun Show, remember that whether you’re a gun-nut or a gun-grabber, there are lots of the other type very close at hand. The proof is the long line at the gun show in our own progressive city, even as city councilfolk try to shut it down.
Yes, there's conflict. But for the most part, Ashevillians aren't killers or fascists. If you really want to stop violence, as both sides claim, maybe try being nice to your neighbors. It can’t hurt.
And, if you’re walking down the street and realize your chainsaw needs adjusting, maybe wait till you’re back at home. Thanks.