In the wake of the tragedy in Pittsburgh last week, TIME’s releasing of the cover of its November issue titled “Guns In America” could not be more pertinent. The latest issue tackles the debate over gun control in the United States. Within the timeline of just over 5 months, the TIME’s project on guns covered three cities; St. Louis, Washington D.C. and Dallas.
Infamous French street artist JR, who is known for his politicized work across the world, was commissioned to work on the magazine’s new issue. An extensive interview process made up of the distinct views of 245 people across these three U.S. cities, provided the framework for the project.
The testimonials came from a range of individuals across the political spectrum. The project’s participants included gun enthusiasts, teachers, competitive shooters, Black Lives Matter activists, marines, cops, and more. Each participant was photographed.
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After all of the interviews were conducted and all of the testimonials were gathered, JR was tasked with carefully arranging each photograph of the interviewees.
Bearing semblance to the floor of Congress, every individual is positioned around a centered bureau with microphones and the U.S. Constitution unscrolled. The result is a stunning black and white photomontage and visual rendering of the democratic spirit of debate.
The French artist immersed himself within the highly vexed dialogue on guns in America. While he admitted to being somewhat naive on the issue, describing how the project forced him to journey into new territory, his signature shades ultimately do not blind him from seeing what’s really going on in America.
The French artist has an outsider’s perspective on the issue of gun control. Like JR, I am also an outsider looking in on the issue. I was born and grew up in Sydney, Australia.
This factor doesn’t make us omniscient figures. What it does offer, however, is an important perspective.
The 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Australia is widely known as the event that catalyzed the Australian conservative government’s decision to restrict gun laws. As a result, gun-related deaths have reduced dramatically in the country. The Port Arthur massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history. But it was also the last.
1996 was also the year I was born. I was fortunate to grow up in a cultural climate where I went to school devoid of the conception that an individual would come onto school grounds and be intent on killing as many people as possible with their military-style arsenal. It wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind.
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How would an artist, one whose body of work explores the world’s most complex social issues, approach the topic of guns in America today? TIME’s Editor-in-Chief, Edward Felsenthal, asked that question in the From the Editor letter in this week’s special report: Guns in America. “If he were @jr, a native of Paris,” writes Felsenthal, “it would be with fresh eyes (behind his trademark sunglasses) and an open mind. His latest work—extraordinary murals that bring together on one canvas people from all points of view and walks of life—is about our common humanity. His message, powerful and regrettably rare at this cultural moment, landed him on this year’s TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people.” @jr’s mural—pasted on the Houston Bowery Wall on Oct. 26, through Nov. 15—envisions the cover of TIME as a table, the kind of setting where we might actually listen to one another. Over five months, he and his team, along with a group of TIME journalists, traveled to three cities—St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; and Dallas—to film, photograph and record, one by one, people who represent the vast range of voices in our gun debate. The final result brought together 245 people from every imaginable vantage point: veterans and teachers, hunters and doctors, people afraid that guns may kill their children and people afraid they won’t have guns to protect their children. The participants in this project “will always be part of the same mural even if they don’t share the same ideas,” says the artist. “I really hope they will actually listen to each other, and I hope that people will join this conversation.” Explore all 245 voices in this @time and @jr project at TIME.com/guns-in-america. Photographs by @claramokriphoto for @time
For me, school was a place of learning. That’s the way it should be.
At the same time, I attended college in the U.S. Situating myself now in the context of what an American student encounters and the fears they carry, I recognize that my experience back home was a fortunate position to uphold but it shouldn’t have to be.
I didn’t have to walk into a classroom feeling unsafe or walk through a metal detector to start the school day. Nor was my class day interrupted by “active shooter” drills. Children and teachers should not have to be equipped with skills or tactics to take down a gunman. Gun violence is a systemic issue.
Importantly, gun violence and the threat of gun violence are one of several ways in which children and youth in the United States are denied access to a complete education.
I am alert to the fact that efforts to solve the issue of gun violence have gained momentum both on and off school/college campus, because it impacts all communities, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and class.
In other words, the discourse on these mass shootings isn’t racialized in the same way other forms of gun violence in the United States are.
These mass shootings, whether in schools, colleges, malls, cinemas, and nightclubs, are a form of terrorism. They disrupt the routine of daily life in the public sphere and affect how we chose to operate in our quotidian environments. But these events are not discursively positioned as such.
In the wake of these mass shootings, the dialogue is orientated around the shooter; focusing on their mental health as well as pathologizing and reducing the event to an isolated occurrence of a ‘lone wolf’ acting out.
The fact that these events are normalized is astounding to me.
I want to be able to go into a movie theater and not have to pay closer attention to the exit signs or feel my stomach drop when someone leaves in the middle of a movie, prompting me to internally ask myself, “what if that individual comes back into the theater with a gun?”
I am also queer woman. I want to be able to go to a queer bar or club with the sole intent of dancing and having a good time and not have the thought of someone with a semi-automatic rifle entering into space and turn a nightclub into a combat war zone.
I point to the Port Arthur case in Australia earlier as a paradigm as to what a government can and should do in response to such devastating events.
I know Americans who have pro-gun views and/or are hunting enthusiasts are quick to quash this Australian model on the basis of cultural differences.
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When 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, in one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in U.S. history, people from all sides condemned the violence. Then the conversation quickly became familiar. The alleged shooter carried an assault-style rifle and three pistols, authorities said. His ability to bring those weapons into the synagogue unchallenged has again elicited questions about who is allowed to own a gun in America. President Trump quickly interjected the role of armed protection into the debate. Different communities view these questions in vastly different ways, discussing them largely in echo chambers of those who share their geography, their political party, their newsfeed. This division is part of what @time sought to address in its “Guns in America” project, published just two days before the Pittsburgh shooting. TIME partnered with the artist @jr to ask 245 Americans about their experiences with guns and invited them to share their stories and perspectives on how to find common ground. The resulting mural, composed of 245 portraits, was pasted on the Houston Bowery Wall in New York City on Oct. 26, and meant as a testament to the goals of hearing one another and searching for understanding. Over the weekend, the mural was spray painted with the number 11 in red—an apparent reference to the individuals slain in Pittsburgh. Flowers were placed at the base of the mural, making it a makeshift memorial. After the weekend’s events, we talked to two of the project’s participants about how it informed their views and what they hope to see in the national gun conversation moving forward. Read more on TIME.com. Photograph by @andreskudacki for TIME
But is crucial to point out that before the Port Arthur Massacre, there had been 13 shootings in Australia in the 18 years leading up to the horrific massacre in Tasmania. There was a gun culture. Some Australians enjoy hunting, just as some Americans do.
In other words, the Port Arthur massacre was not a single isolated event. It was constitutive of a thread of violent instances linked to the systemic issue of gun violence in Australia.
For that reason, the government accepted that it needed to make reforms to the nation’s gun legislation. Consequently, the Australian government introduced strict gun laws that prohibited military-style assault rifles and weapons, prohibited their import, and provided a nationwide buyback program, funded with a Medicare tax as an incentive for people to relinquish their weapons.
There is no underestimating of the fact that the issue of guns in the United States is complex. I have observed that debates on the second amendment haven’t been particularly productive since the American public’s consciousness is so embedded in the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.
It is for this reason that I concur with the TIME interviewee Jamison Sweet (47, a gun owner in St.Louis), that “guns aren’t going anywhere.” When people and politicians assert the need to make reforms to gun legislation, this shouldn’t be interpreted as an impending sweeping scheme to take every gun away from gun-owner.
Plus, a lot of people aren’t aware that 75% of Americans favor stricter gun laws, 94% are in favor of gun owners requiring background checks and 72% support banning assault-style weapons.
So why hasn’t there been any traction on this issue given that there is a significant amount of common ground shared amongst the American public?
Well, if President no. 45 really wants to talk about actually draining the swamp, let’s rid the NRA from its political machinations and its investment in putting money into the pockets of U.S. political officials.
Nonetheless, I have hope that there will be change.
The history of social justice movements in the United States have come about through student activism. The survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, are spearheading a national movement for gun control. Indeed, their leadership and inspiring initiative have rejuvenated the debate on the gun control.
I strongly hope the organizing taking place right now across the country in the wake of what happened in Parkland and now Pittsburgh, will not just be a moment, but a movement.