These Photos Will Make You Think About Just How Many Guns Americans Own

If there is a defining mythology in America, it surely involves guns.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

An American flag display made from shotgun shells.

No place has been defined more by guns than the American West, with its legacy of John Wayne, westerns, and the wide frontier. Working with BuzzFeed News, photographer Jesse Rieser has criss-crossed the region, visiting Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma to explore the prevalence of gun culture. Rieser photographed gun ranges and neighborhoods wracked by gun violence and spoke with activists, politicians, and gun owners. His project examines the mythology around guns and its origins, illustrating the multifaceted viewpoints around firearms and seeking to challenge the idea that gun enthusiasts fit a certain profile.

Rieser, who grew up on a farm outside of Springfield, Missouri, has a nuanced relationship with guns. "As a child, my father owned a .22 to protect their chicken coops from skunks and foxes," he said. "My brothers and I were not allowed to have squirt guns and GI Joes. My parents felt the gamification of gunfights was damaging for developing minds, [and] this idea seemed radical in the ‘80s."

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A Remington 870 shotgun sits in the passenger seat of a red Ford mustang in Maryland Heights, Missouri. Wilshire Gun employee Jake Gaden wears a Glock 17 1986 T-shirt in Oklahoma City. Two Guns, Arizona, exit sign off Interstate 40. Roadside revolver as seen from US Highway 69 in Atoka, Oklahoma.

Just weeks before his high school graduation, the shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School happened, shaking a complacent America to its core. Since then, over 250,000 students have experienced gun violence at school while a veritable industry has sprung up in response, devoted to producing bulletproof backpacks, door locks, and other measures designed to keep kids safe while receiving an education.

Across the United States, gun ownership has skyrocketed in the past five years; according to the Pew Research Center, around 40% of Americans now live in a household with a gun. Multiple cities have also reported a surge in gun violence since the beginning of the pandemic.

The contradictory ideals of gun ownership can be clearly seen in Missouri. Gunfire interrupted the mayor of St. Louis during a gun violence news conference last fall, while in the same city, a personal injury lawyer who became famous for wielding a gun against Black Lives Matter protesters is running for office. The Department of Justice recently sued Missouri over a law that allows people to sue if they feel their gun rights have been violated, which has drawn widespread criticism from law enforcement and prevented local officials from cooperating with federal agencies on gun charges.

Rieser’s photographs investigate gun culture as a phenomenon that is synonymous with being American. It is deeply ingrained in the country’s history and identity, which celebrates individualism as well as freedom.

A man in camo holding a shotfun in a field
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Anthony Moore holds a 20-gauge shotgun in a meadow near Rogersville, Missouri, on Aug. 31, 2021. An avid hunter, father of three, and onetime pastor, Moore was a close high school friend and basketball teammate in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri.

A diorama of a hunter and a t-shirt with the slogan Hell No You Won't Take Our AR-15s
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A buffalo hunter diorama in the NRA Museum located in the first Bass Pro Shop in Springfield, Missouri, on Sept. 2, 2021. The museum has five dioramas portraying the development and evolution of hunting arms in America from pre-colonial times to the present. The hunter pictured here wields a Sharps Model 1874 single-shot rifle, considered by many to be the quintessential buffalo rifle. A T-shirt for sale at the Wilshire Gun Club in Oklahoma City on Aug. 29, 2021.

Two little girls in full camo with goggles and earmuffs carrying guns on the porch
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Ryann and Ava Shupe pose for a portrait at their father’s hunting cabin in Dunnegan, Missouri, on Sept. 2, 2021. For several years, a weekend at a time, Amos Shupe built their family cabin in 2013 as a streamlined option when visiting the countryside (his daughters love camping). He teaches his daughters firearm safety since hunting is a family activity widely enjoyed in the Ozarks.

Two boys on the porch with an airsoft gun
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Cyrus Sebastian Pearson reloads his hi-cap airsoft pistol as Brody Rowell looks on while shooting target practice from the Pearson’s back deck in Springfield.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

An actor playing Wyatt Earp in the foreground and an actor playing Tom McLaury gunned down in a reenactment of the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Arizona on April 14, 2022.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A billboard advertising low-priced firearms for sale at Mountainside Outfitters as seen from Highway US 60 in Springfield.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

The J.M Davis Arms Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, is home to over 20,000 firearms and artifacts from around the world.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A promotional toy water gun from Carrie Underwood’s 2015 song “Little Toy Guns" on display at the J.M. Davis Arms Historical Museum in Claremore.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Malachi loads a .22 Remington while brothers Titus and Marcus look on as he shoots target practice and learns gun safety from their father, Anthony Moore, in Rogersville, Missouri.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Travis Tremayne Tyler shows his gun wounds suffered in a 2018 botched armed robbery that resulted in a shoot-out outside Nara Café in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, on Sept. 9, 2021. A St. Louis native growing up in Hamilton Heights, Tyler doesn’t like to be defined by titles, but to others, he is known as one of the country’s most prolific gospel rappers, a speaker, author, community activist, mentor, survivor, change agent, and force of nature. A onetime drug dealer, he decided he wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem. He often mentors nearly released ex-cons, and it was in 2018, when walking one of his female counterparts out from the mentorship program, that he became involved in a shoot-out (he’s licensed to conceal carry) leaving him with several leg wounds, including a broken femur.

A shopping cart in front of a sign that says $1 Wow in a parking lot
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A man was shot and killed at this Family Dollar in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sept. 7, 2021.

A sign saying Live Laugh Love and if that doesnt work, Load Aim Fire next to an image of a woman cleaning a gun at her desk
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A home decoration as seen in a gift shop at the Goldfield ghost town in Arizona on Aug. 12, 2021. Set in the shadows of the Superstition Mountains, Goldfield is a reconstructed 1890s town that offers rides, retail, restaurants, gold mine tours, Old West gunfights, and a history museum.

Sue Hartley cleans her first gun ever purchased, a Remington 870 shotgun, in Maryland Heights, Missouri, on Sept. 10, 2021. Hartley grew up rabbit hunting with her father. A self-described “hardcore conservative Christian,” she currently works on a search and rescue team and helps run a ministry to feed the community.

A group of people wearing masks in front of a map
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Some of the Wells-Goodfellow/Hamilton Heights “Cure the Violence” team have a briefing meeting in front of a neighborhood map showing assaults and mediations at their Wells-Goodfellow/Hamilton Heights office in St. Louis. The Cure the Violence intervention program has been credited for reducing the city’s homicides by more than 25% in St. Louis during 2021. The Chicago-based program trains people who live in areas with high crime rates to intervene in conflicts. The goal is to prevent disagreements from escalating to violent crime and to provide social services such as job training to neighborhood residents.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A memorial for Joyce Marie Freeman in the neighborhood of Dutchtown in St. Louis on Sept. 9, 2021. Freeman, 20, was fatally wounded by a gunshot while she was in a vehicle with her boyfriend and newborn son on the way to a doctor's appointment on Nov. 23, 2020. Police have since arrested Steven Washington and Devontez Huntley, both 19, on charges of first-degree murder, assault, and other charges.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

The boarded-up windows at Kaldi’s Coffee at the City Garden Sculpture Park in St. Louis were shot out.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A home in need of repair in the Woods-Goodfellow neighborhood in St. Louis on Sept. 8, 2021. Empty homes foster crime by providing hideouts for criminal activities, such as drug dens. They also spread fear, discouraging residents from walking down the street and socializing with neighbors — emboldening criminals with the sense that the streets are theirs to control. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that cities can reduce crime substantially by remediating vacant lots and abandoned homes on high-crime city blocks.

A sign that says Please Check Your Guns At The Door with a handgun next to it
Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

Sue Hartley’s Ruger 9mm LCP sits on her entryway table in Maryland Heights, Missouri, on Sept. 10, 2021.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

A fading water tower mural of a cowboy wielding two guns in Arizona on Aug. 28, 2021. A shattered window from a bullet at a Family Dollar store in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in St. Louis on Sept. 8, 2021.

Jesse Rieser for BuzzFeed News

An Adopt-A-Highway memorial for Dwayne Antonio Gibbs in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis. Gibbs, 30, was a father of eight when he was shot and killed. The shooting happened in the parking lot of the BP gas station in 2017.