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A Gun Show is a Scary Place to Take Unauthorized Photos. I Did it Anyway.

by Maureen Cain.

I want to get to the gun show early to avoid crowds, so I arrive when it opens at 9:00 on Sunday morning. I figure the fewer people that are there, the fewer who will notice that I snuck in my painted bullet casings to take photos about the ubiquity of gun violence in the United States. But by 9:15 the dirt parking lot at the fairgrounds is already filling up. I park my Jetta among the rows of pickup trucks, stuff a handful of spray-painted casings into my purse and join the flow of men in cowboy hats heading into the gun show.

Outside the arena are food stands selling kettle corn and hot dogs. I pay $14 for entry. At the door to the gun show, there's a confusing sign that reads "No weapons beyond this point." The security guard asks if I have any guns on me, but he doesn't search my bag.

I'm out of my element and more than a little nervous, so I walk around first to try to get comfortable with my surroundings. Hundreds of men and a handful of women are shopping for guns in this warehouse-size room. I see two women wearing sequined pink "Women for Trump" T-shirts. I talk to one woman selling a non-lethal self defense gadget for "when my husband isn't around to protect me."

After a few minutes of wandering, I can focus on the aesthetics of the situation and spot locations to set up and photograph the rainbow colored casings. I don't ask for permission and I don't explain what I'm doing. I wait until the moment is right and I take my pictures.

There are an estimated 5,000 gun shows every year in the U.S., with thousands of guns sold at each event. Although some states require background checks, federal law does not require private gun sellers at gun shows to conduct background checks or to track sales.

At the gun show, the connection between politics and gun ownership is clear. One man asks me to sign a petition to keep the town from becoming a sanctuary city for refugees and tells me, "I want my family to be safe. I guess that makes me a racist."

There are booths selling T-shirts and bumper stickers:

Guns have two enemies: Rust and Hillary.

I like my guns like Obama likes his voters: Unregistered.

AK-47: Rated E for Everyone.

...and the above picture of Trump, which reads In reality, they're not after me, they're after you . . . I'm just in the way.

The vendor at this booth sells ammunition he makes himself in a machine that produces 1,200 bullets per hour. It's difficult to track the exact number, but industry experts estimate that there are billions of bullets manufactured in the U.S. every year.

At the "AR-15 Headquarters" pictured here, I pick up a semi-automatic rifle to see what it feels like. I tell the vendor in the cowboy hat that I'm surprised at how small and lightweight it is. He seems irritated with my ignorance and says, "That's the whole point." There's a video playing at his booth of a line of young white men in baseball hats at a firing range whooping and shooting their AR-15s.

An AR-15 rifle costs between $400-$600 and comes with an assortment of attachments and modules to customize your weapon. AR-15s or similar rifles were used in many of the deadliest American mass shootings, including at Sandy Hook Elementary School, at the 2015 San Bernadino attack, and at the 2017 Las Vegas Harvest music festival, the deadliest American shooting in the 21st century.

The vendor at this booth looked up at me, watched me lay out and photograph my bullet casings, then continued to tell his customer about the precision of the scope on this rifle made in the Czech Republic.

After I take this photo, I leave the event. Later I learn that during the few hours I was at the gun show, a 4 year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by her sibling at a family gathering in Fort Worth, Texas and a 5 year-old girl was killed by gunfire in a crime-related incident in Knoxville, Tennessee. During the course of this two day gun show, there were at least 328 reported incidents of gun violence in 41 different U.S. states, resulting in 76 deaths and 181 injuries.

Maureen Cain

Artist & Speaker

Gun violence data from Gun Violence Archive.

You can view more photos at United States of Ammunition.

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