by Maureen Cain.
“Have you been to Sandy Hook?”
It’s the question people ask when I tell them about United States of Ammunition, my art project that’s taking me to sites of shootings in all 50 states. What they’re really asking is: Have you been to the place where the most terrible thing happened?
No, I haven’t been to Sandy Hook. Not yet. But I have been to more than a hundred other places where terrible things have happened. Aside from first responders and law enforcement, I have been to more sites of gun violence in the US than anyone else. I distract the people who ask about Sandy Hook -- perhaps with an inappropriate amount of enthusiasm -- with stories of other places I’ve been. Can we talk about Tucson or Las Vegas or Charleston? Let me tell you about Pulse Nightclub or Harvey Milk? The Oregon Trail or The Trail of Tears? JFK, RFK, MLK? Tupac or Biggie or Marvin Gaye? I’ve been to all those places. Let’s talk about that.
Anything, please, to avoid the unique pain of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the event that made the President of the United States cry on live TV.
I’ve been to Columbine, our collective jumping off point for a decades-long epidemic of angry white boys shooting schoolchildren. I also went to Parkland, in a similarly affluent neighborhood on the other side of the country, where the terror of school shootings continues 20 years later.
I learned in Savannah, Georgia, in front of the house where a 16-year-old boy shot and killed his 13-year-old girlfriend, with my face pressed into the asphalt of her driveway alongside a fresh memorial of pink balloons and pink teddy bears, that no scale exists to measure the relative horror of gun violence. Every single shooting is the most terrible shooting.
I started this project when a box of 1,000 rounds of ammunition was mistakenly delivered to my address outside of Seattle. My first thought: “Who knew you could order bullets online?” My second thought: “I need to make art with this.” But not with live ammunition, so I called the sheriff’s office and they took the bullets away. Instead, I went to firing ranges and collected thousands of bullet casings, or “brass” as I’ve learned to call them. I washed the brass and painted them cheerful colors. A year and a half later, those same painted casings have traveled border-to-border and coast-to-coast.
I photograph the bullet casings in temporary art installations at sites of mass shootings, police brutality, domestic violence, suicide, genocide and assasinations. In El Paso, behind the Walmart, I set up 1,000 rainbow-colored casings in the shape of the Great State of Texas. In Ferguson, Missouri, I used the casings to outline a memorial dove embedded in the sidewalk on the street where police killed Mike Brown. I learned the names of Atatiana Jefferson, Oscar Grant, De’Von Bailey.
My white lady privilege allows me to stroll into places and situations that would likely find people with darker skin harassed, arrested or shot. I trespassed in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, birthplace of the Aryan Nations. Where Arizona meets Sonora, I stuck my arm between the slats of the border wall to photograph casings on the Mexico side of the line. Armed U.S. Border Patrol agents watched while I played hokey-pokey across the international boundary. I snuck into a Trump-loving gun show and took unauthorized photographs of cowboys buying AR-15s. All under the cloak of whiteness.
The same people who ask if I’ve been to Sandy Hook tell me I’m brave to have done those things. They don’t know that the night I came home from the gun show, I drank half a bottle of bourbon to wash away the low-grade PTSD. They are unaware that online I hide behind a fierce 17-year-old girl who manages my social media accounts because I’m terrified of the haters. I use family and friends as personal security at photoshoots, and I drag them on road trips because there’s no way in hell I’m doing this alone. They also bring much-needed levity to the dark endeavor we now call “Mo’s Funtime Tours.”
Now that there’s light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, I’ll travel again soon. I’ll get a vaccinated friend in the car with me and we’ll check the remaining states off my list. I’ll go to Hawaii and Alaska. I’ll spend a lot of time in Chicago. And I’ll go to Sandy Hook, one of the many, many places where the most terrible thing happened.