Today, the gun remains the defining icon of American culture, for Americans as well as for the world. Daniel Boone, Wyatt Earp and George Patton (who rode to battle packing two ivory-handled pistols) are the heroes of American popular history; Jesse James, Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde the cherished anti-heroes. Hollywood found John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to keep the symbols alive, and created Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to provide hi-tech variations on the themes.
In late 20th-century America, lawlessness is predominantly an urban phenomenon. Law-abiding citizens carry guns as precautions, as pragmatic responses to real dangers. But it is the men and women of the hinterland who preserve a sense of the gun as a noble emblem of American tradition. In the small towns of upstate New York, of Michigan, of Montana, the dangers are less great, but the ancient myths are more enduring. The idea lingers that an American who does not own a gun is not a true patriot. The people of Middle America fly the Stars and Stripes outside their homes and gather at gun clubs to reinforce their sense of community. On weekends, they take their kids to gun shows, and buy a small $50 pistol "for mom's birthday".
These Americans have felt assailed these last 20 years by the emergence of a movement seeking to inhibit their constitutional right to bear arms. It is no accident that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies - second only to the Israeli lobby in terms of influence, some insiders say. Like the Israelis, they feel under threat. Last year the Democrats passed legislation banning the commercial sale of assault rifles. Bob Dole, the leading Republican contender for the 1996 presidential election, succumbed in March to NRA blandishments and promised to fight for the law's repeal. Bill Clinton, backed by the majority of America's police chiefs, had declared in his State of the Union address in January that so long as he remained president the law would remain on the books. The figures are on Clinton's side (in 1993, 2,420 homicides took place in New York State; the figure for the whole of England and Wales that year was 670), for they lay bare the truth that the United States is a far more violent place than other developed countries with strict gun control laws. Every time a madman opens up with an automatic in a family food outlet, or a schoolchild fires a shot inside a classroom, the clamour grows for Americans' security to be given priority over their 18th-century constitutional rights. The slaughter in Oklahoma and the gun-obsessed environment which bred the bombers has raised the clamour to a new pitch.
Yet this is an issue which defies logic, for it brings into play questions of national identity whose answers lie more in the gut than in the head. Joan Barker, who is from upstate New York, took these photographs as part of a project undertaken since 1991. Her greatest concern, she says, is that those who see them should emerge with a keener sense, not of her countrymen's foibles, but of their complexity.
! Joan Barker's photographs are part of the exhibition "Pulp Fact" at the Photographer's Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2, from 19 May to 17 June (telephone: 0171-831 1772).
'THE PACIFIER', 1992: Mark, who runs an office repair business, came upstate for the baptism of his friend Fred's son (see previous page). He told Fred he wanted to have his picture taken with his own son, Harrington. Asked to choose a weapon, Mark said: 'I want something mean-looking,' and then picked out a semi-automatic, pump-operated assault shotgun. 'I'm going to do my Clint Eastwood impression,' he told the photographer. An ex-soldier, Mark used only to fire weapons on the range, but is now about to buy a gun from Fred. 'You never know what'll happen. The neighbourhood changes.'
'PEACEABLE KINGDOM', 1992: Bob, who is an insurance salesman, and his family pose outside their home. The turkey and the deer are life- sized Styrofoam models which they use for archery practice. Only Bob owns a gun, which he doesn't fire at home: he's a member of a pistol team for which he shoots competitively. The National Rifle Association, which is opposed to gun control, estimates that there are more than 200 million firearms in the US, owned by about 65 million Americans, half of whom keep them primarily for hunting, 13 per cent for target shooting and only 11 per cent solely for protection.
'THE INSTRUCTOR', 1991: Paul is a professor of computer science and a safety instructor for the National Rifle Association. This picture was taken at a gun club in upstate New York: 'Owning a gun is an important statement which needs to be made by people like me, who have high credibility with traditional liberals. People should start looking into the question of gun-ownership without pre- conceptions. While they might not come to the conclusion that they themselves should own a firearm, at least they'd understand what motivates firearms owners and not dismiss us as crazy penis-carrying rednecks.'
In upstate New York, the photographer Joan Barker has chronicled the average Amer
ican's fascination with guns. John Carlin reports on a cherished constitutional right
'BAPTISM', 1992: Fred, 40, after the baptism of his son, Fred Jnr. Fred is an administrator for a truck dealership and also runs a gunsmith's. He owns 41 guns, including a replica 150lb cannon: 'I've had guns in my life for 35 years. Every day I get up and I have a gun. It's my right and I'm gonna have it. Fred Jnr shot a gun for the first time this Easter, aged 34 months. I had to hold it for him. I give him a gun on each birthday. They all go into the safe until he can legally own them when he's 21. If he chooses, he could sell them and probably make enough to pay for a college education.'
'TOMMY AND THE FLAMING-Os', 1992: Tommy and his wife outside their home. Four years ago, Tommy, 47, was made redundant from his job as a clerk for a car dealership and is currently studying bio-medical technology. 'I don't consider myself violent. I've always liked guns aesthetically and as machines, and I enjoy target shooting. I don't know if I would use a gun against a burglar, but if a crime involved bodily harm I doubt I'd hesitate. I would say about three-quarters of my friends own guns. These are working people, honest citizens: I can't think of one who owns a gun only for protection.'
'REMEMBER HONEY, SHOOT TO KILL', 1993:
Tess, 41, and her banker husband live in New York City. This picture was taken at their country home in upstate New York with baby Mac and Tess's mother, Sheila, who lives in California and who instructs women on the proper use of firearms: 'My mother and I have very different attitudes towards guns. She sleeps with a loaded one next to her pillow. She gave me my first gun when I was a struggling artist living in a dangerous area of Manhattan, and told me: "Never flourish or threaten with a weapon. If you're going to take one out, remember, honey, shoot to kill."'Reuse content