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November 12, 2013

Nina Berman from San Antonio: Gun Rally Fashion Then and Now

I photographed NRA gun activists and militia members in the 1990’s.  Much of the conversation around gun rights today originated back then in the debate over the Brady Bill, which was passed in 1993 and required background checks for some gun purchases.  Like today, gun owners then labeled gun control advocates as socialists and communists who wanted to disarm America.  The UN was poised to invade.  Black helicopters were everywhere.  Bill and Hillary Clinton were the anti-Christ and Waco and Ruby Ridge became modern day Alamos.

At political rallies, participants liked to dress as Uncle Sam or revolutionary war patriots.   Some wore homespun clothes which was a hallmark of militia and survivalist communities. The demographic was overwhelmingly middle aged and older white men from the rural south, mid west and mountain states.  They didn’t publicly parade their weapons as now, rather they stockpiled them and organized training, armed patrols and survival expos.  A subtext of white supremacy and Christian identity pervaded the narrative, although this was always publicly denied.

So it was with a sense of “I’ve seen it all before”  that I went to San Antonio for last month’s Come and Take it Rally. Hundreds of gun owners with loaded rifles slung over their shoulders assembled at the Alamo and later marched to the Confederate War memorial in nearby Travis Park.  They vowed to carry openly and often despite a local ordinance forbidding firearms in public parks and other locations.

When I think of a gun,  I think of someone who is wounded or in mourning for a loved one.  I think of children in Newtown, or teenagers in Chicago or the TSA employee at LAX.  I think of Amadou Diallao, and other unarmed black men killed by the NYPD.   Or I think of names and places forever conjoined – Cho Seung-Hui and Virginia Tech.  George Zimmerman and Travyon Martin.

In other words, when I think of guns, I think of unnecessary violence.

And therein lies the disconnect.

So what is a gun?

At the Alamo that day, I saw a whole new generation of gun owners who wore their weapons like Madison Avenue socialites wear their Hermes bags.

A young man who said he was “Tom Jefferson” from Austin covered his face and crotch and everything else in red white and blue.  His gun clip rested against his groin. Next to him was “Molly Pitcher”, who wore a starry, shear blue mini skirt,  a red bustier, matching lipstick and a  black rifle across her chest.   Nearby a little girl carried her pink and silver pistol in a pony holster. An entire family came dressed in black and red, the father looking like a character from the Blues Brothers.  His son wore black glasses and a t-shirt that said robot monster.

Politics is theater and this was a production. If I didn’t know the guns were loaded, I would have thought I was in a back lot on a movie set teeming with extras. Take away the Alex Jones globalist rant and the Oathkeepers constitutionalist vows and what was left was happy consumers flaunting their bling — which was so overwhelming I actually felt sorry for the one man dressed as the revolutionary war patriot; he had so little to show off.

Text and photographs by Nina Berman

About the Photographer

Nina Berman

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer with a primary interest in the American political and social landscape. She is the author of two monographs, "Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq" and "Homeland," both examining war and militarism. Her work has been recognized with awards in art and journalism from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the World Press Photo Foundation, the Open Society Institute Documentary Fund and Hasselblad, among others. She has participated in more than 90 solo and group exhibitions, including the Whitney Museum 2010 Biennial, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Portland Art Museum, and Dublin Contemporary. Her work has been featured on CBS, CNN, PBS, ABC, BBC and reviewed in the New York Times, Aperture, Art in America, TIME, and the New Yorker. She is a member of NOOR photo collective and is an Associate Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in New York City. See more of Nina's work for Reading The Pictures here.

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