American Guns, American Deaths
What photographs of the sites of mass shootings show—and what they omit
Over the course of two years, Spencer Ostrander made several trips around the country to take pictures of the sites of more than 30 mass shootings. This is a small selection from that body of work. The numbers of those killed and injured in each incident do not include the perpetrators.
ccording to a recent estimate by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, there are 393 million guns currently owned by residents of the United States—more than one firearm for every man, woman, and child in the country. Each year, approximately 40,000 Americans are killed by gunshot wounds, which is roughly equivalent to the annual rate of traffic deaths on American roads and highways. Of those 40,000 gun fatalities, more than half of them are suicides, which in turn account for about half of all suicides per year. With the murders caused by guns, the accidental deaths caused by guns, and the law-enforcement killings caused by guns, the average comes out to more than 100 Americans killed by bullets every day.
On that same average day, another 200-plus are wounded by guns, which translates into 80,000 a year. Eighty thousand wounded and 40,000 dead, or 120,000 ambulance calls and emergency-room cases for every 12-month tick of the clock, but the toll of gun violence goes far beyond the pierced and bloodied bodies of the victims themselves, spilling out into the devastations visited upon their immediate families, their extended families, their friends, their fellow workers, the people of their neighborhoods, their schools, their churches, their softball teams, and their communities at large—the vast brigade of lives touched by the presence of a single person who lives or has lived among them—meaning that the number of Americans directly or indirectly marked by gun violence every year must be tallied in the millions.
Those are the facts, but helpful as it is to look at the figures that support those facts, they do not answer the question of why mass shootings occur so frequently in America and nowhere else. Bloodshed and death on this scale and at this level of frequency would seem to call for national action, a concerted effort on the part of state, federal, and municipal governments to control what by any measure of rational understanding is a public-health crisis. America’s relationship to guns is anything but rational, however, and therefore we have done little or nothing to fix the problem. It’s not that we lack the intelligence or the wherewithal to relieve this threat to the safety and well-being of society, but for complex historical reasons, we have lacked the will to do so, and so obdurate have we become in our refusal to address the problem that in 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was barred by Congress from using federal funds to conduct research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” (In 2019, the CDC and the National Institutes of Health were given $25 million to research gun violence.)
By contrast, consider the progress we have made with the cars we drive and how conscientiously we have pushed down the death and injury rates caused by automobile accidents over the years. And make no mistake about it: Cars are not terribly different from guns. A high-powered automatic rifle and a 4,000-pound Chevy barreling down a highway at 70 or 80 miles an hour are both lethal weapons.
The car has been with us since the tail end of the 19th century, and at the beginning of its life the horseless carriage was seen as nothing more than a faster, motorized version of the horse-drawn carriage. Consequently, there were initially no standardized laws or regulations governing its use: no licenses, for example, which meant no road tests to prove one’s competence behind the wheel; no stop signs; no traffic lights; no speed limits, no brake signals; no rearview or side-view mirrors; no left- or right-turn-signal lights; no penalties for drunk driving; no shatterproof windshields; no padded dashboards; and no seat belts.
Bit by bit, over the better part of the 20th century, each one of those improvements was made—made and enforced by law—and the roads, streets, and highways of the country have become safer because of them. There are still an appalling number of traffic deaths in America every year, but compared with the dizzying rates of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, the percentage of deaths per total miles driven by about 229 million licensed American drivers in close to 280 million registered vehicles—trucks, vans, passenger cars, buses, and motorcycles—has in fact been vastly reduced. Which raises the question: If we could face up to the dangers represented by cars and use our brains and sense of common purpose to combat those dangers, why haven’t we been able to do the same thing with guns?
Guns have been around a lot longer than cars, of course, but cars are much bigger than guns and therefore more visible, and after circulating among us for the past 120 years, they have established a hold on the American imagination no less dominant than the spell cast by our passion for guns. Cars and guns are the twin pillars of our deepest national mythology, for the car and the gun each represents an idea of freedom and individual empowerment, the most exciting forms of self-expression available to us: Dare yourself to push the gas pedal to the floor, and suddenly you are racing along at 100 miles an hour; curl your fingers around the trigger of your Glock or AR-15, and you own the world.
Nor do we ever tire of watching and thinking about those things. The two most beloved components of American films have long been the shoot-out and the car chase, and no matter how many times we have lost ourselves in the spectacle of those deftly orchestrated thrill-a-thons as they played out on-screen, we still go back for more.
On the other hand, for all the similarities between cars and guns, there are fundamental differences as well. Guns exist for the sole purpose of destroying life, whereas cars are manufactured to carry the living from one place to another, and even if too many drivers, passengers, and pedestrians happen to be killed in cars and because of cars, we largely call their deaths accidental, a tragic by-product of the risks and dangers of the road. By contrast, nearly every death by gun is intentional, whether the person using the gun is a soldier in battle, a hunter stalking deer in the woods, a deranged or cold-blooded murderer on a city street or in the kitchen of someone’s house, an armed robber who panics while holding up a jewelry store, or a crushed, despairing soul who downs half a bottle of bourbon in a dark room and then fires a bullet into his head.
Cars are a necessity of civilian life in America. Guns are not, and as more and more Americans have come to understand that, the percentage of households that own guns has been dropping steadily over the past five decades, from half of them to a third of them. Yet the number of guns currently owned by Americans has grown—and just a small group of people own a great percentage of these guns. How to account for this great difference, and why at this moment in our history have Americans been pulling further and further apart on the subject of guns, leading to a situation in which most of us want little or nothing to do with them and some of us—a minority that contains millions—have fetishized them into emblems of American freedom, an essential human right granted to all citizens by the Framers of the Constitution?
This article has been excerpted from Paul Auster’s new book, Bloodbath Nation, with photographs by Spencer Ostrander.
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