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."
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.