Perspectives of global gun cultures
Gun culture in the United States carries a reputation abroad. Although the stereotype of trigger-happy Americans is perpetuated largely by Hollywood, near-constant media reports of shootings across the U.S. lend credence to the notion of a country obsessed with firearms.
Statistically, the perception’s not too far off. Forty-seven percent of Americans reported owning a gun in a 2011 Gallup poll, and data compiled by the Guardian from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows there are nearly nine guns for every 10 people in the United States, the highest level of ownership in the world.
Elsewhere in the world, private gun ownership is subject to different laws and premised on different cultural backgrounds. In a series of photo essays, Reuters photographers around the world chronicled vignettes of gun culture, capturing scenes from shooting ranges, hunting expeditions, roadside murders, and more. These recollections from the professionals who bear witness to the use of deadly weapons help give context to the role guns play in our world.
A recent spate of high-profile mass shootings, including at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, led to renewed calls for gun policy reform in the United States. President Obama took up the mantle with legislative proposals such as background check requirements and a renewed ban on assault weapons. Proponents of tougher laws say easily-accessible firearms contribute to the United States’ shockingly high death toll – data trends suggest that Americans will be more likely to die from gun violence than car accidents by 2015. Yet tighter controls are unwelcome by critics who believe that gun ownership is a constitutionally-enshrined right rooted in mistrust of the government.
Coming in a distant second for the highest level of gun ownership in the world is Yemen, a country often described as awash with arms. Yemen trails far behind the U.S. in terms of gun ownership, with an average of fewer than 55 firearms for every hundred people. In a piece for the Atlantic, journalist Tik Root writes that while traditional law once dictated a certain etiquette on using weapons, those guidelines “have since been bent and broken, with gun use now undoubtedly going beyond mere self-defense.” Following the 2011 uprising against its ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s weak central government faces challenges including food insecurity and threats from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Notoriously neutral Switzerland has a lot of firearms, putting it in third place with roughly 46 guns per 100 people. Gun ownership is tied closely to Switzerland’s national security, as military service is compulsory for men and soldiers are issued rifles to keep at home. As a result, essentially every military-aged man possesses a gun. Swiss photographers Denis Balibouse and Ruben Sprich snapped photographs from their homeland, recalling their personal relationships with firearms. However, a recent policy initiative has changed the immediate availability of these weapons. In 2007, Switzerland passed legislation dictating that military ammunition be stored apart from firearms. Now all army ammunition is kept in central arsenals outside of the home.
Reuters photographers ventured to several other corners of the earth to snap pictures of gun use. In Germany, Michaela Rehle braved freezing weather to accompany 31-year-old Ramona Pohl-Uebel, who loves shooting boar and deer in nature but seldom eats meat, on what turned out to be a fruitless hunt. And in Canada, Reuters photographer Andy Clark blogged about his visit to a shooting range outside Vancouver.
In the Philippines, Reuters photographer Bobby Ranoco followed a pistol-packing judge who presides over court with a loaded .45 caliber pistol on hand. In his free time, Judge “Jimmy” teaches his fellow judges and lawyers shooting skills. The Philippines ranks high in its rate of homicide by firearm. Despite lax enforcement and relatively easy access to weapons, there is little political will to tighten gun laws, in part because politicians rely on armed guards. During election season, a temporary and an often-ignored ban on carrying firearms underscores the potential for violence to escalate.
For the second year in a row, Honduras claimed the unwelcome distinction of having the world’s most violent city. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city after the capital Tegucigalpa, has a homicide rate of 169 per 100,000 people. Laws in Honduras allow civilians to own up to five personal guns, and 83.4% of homicides are by firearm compared to sixty percent in the United States. Arms trafficking has flooded the country, and nearly seventy percent of weapons are estimated to be illegal. Reuters photographer Jorge Cabrera visited this “supermarket” for dangerous stories, where he photographed a crowded local hospital and its morgue. He recounts how police did not intervene in a drive-by shooting just houses away from their station “because they didn’t want to die.”
Killing kangaroos in Australia may not sit well with some, yet that’s just what government authorizes some volunteers to do. A spike in the kangaroo population has caused problems for farmers and damage to the environment, and the solution has been licensing shooters to keep the population in check. Reuters photographer David Gray shared his experience accompanying an Australian plumber on one of these controversial culls.
Following the Newtown school shooting in Connecticut, some commentators turned to Australia as a model for how enacting strict gun control laws might prevent mass shootings. In 1996, an Australian man opened fire at a tourist site in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people. Soon after, the government outlawed semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns, and implemented a mandatory buy-back program. The success of the program has been met with mixed reviews.
The above statistics, while helpful for the sake of comparison, do little to elucidate the real-life impact of firearms compared to first-hand accounts.
Reuters photographers found one recent assignment exceptionally difficult. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 involved documenting the grief and anger of a community that had lost 20 children to senseless violence. In a multimedia presentation, Reuters interviewed the photographers who covered Newtown, in which they recount their stories of documenting the aftermath.
Despite covering two other shootings this year, senior photographer Shannon Stapleton called it the “hardest assignment” of his career. “It borderlined on evil for me,” he said.
The massive media presence angered some residents. Photographer Lucas Jackson recounted being called names, but knew he had to do his job and “let these people just yell at [him] if they want to.”
The disturbing details provide an inside look at the impact of one man’s access to deadly weapons, a tragedy that is but one snapshot of U.S. gun culture that shocks the rest of the world. In an interview, senior photographer Mike Segar explains the importance of photographing funerals for the victims. “I think that this was a tragedy that struck so many people around the world as being so horrible that they had to see that.”
PHOTO: A visitor of DVC Indoor Shooting Centre fires a pistol on their range in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Andy Clark
Chart: Top 20 gun owning nations
|Country||Rank by rate of gun ownership||Average firearms per 100 people|
|United States of America||1||88.8|