Where Are The Bodies? A Modest Proposal To Use Visual Aids For Gun Reform

Stars and stripes on gun
Stars and stripes on gun

It is a melancholic object to news consumers that an epidemic of gun violence is sweeping the nation. Each day 297 people in the United States suffer from the ailment described by medical professionals as a "gunshot wound." Around 30 percent of those afflicted by the condition, which tears human flesh and may penetrate internal organs, will die.

Perhaps most distressing is the regularity of virulent gunshot-wound outbreaks, wherein a large number of people, usually in some sort of safe space such as a school or entertainment venue, succumb to gunshot wounds without prior warning of the risk that an outbreak may occur. Oftentimes, the percentage of gunshot-wound deaths during virulent outbreaks far exceeds 30 percent.

Foreign governments warn their citizens that when traveling to the United States, the high-income nation with the greatest occurrence of gunshot wounds, the visitors can dramatically decrease their chances of exposure by avoiding fights and staying indoors at night. Already this year, around 25,000 people in the United States, including 271 children under age twelve, have suffered from a gunshot wound. More than 6,000 have died. On June 12, a particularly virulent outbreak occurred at a gay nightclub in Orlando. In the course of a few hours, 102 people there suffered gunshot wounds, and 49 of them died.

It is agreed by all rational persons that such prodigious numbers of people regularly suffering from a painful, often fatal, condition is deplorable and should be remedied at once. Why, then, have lawmakers regularly failed to protect their constituents by passing reasonable firearm regulations, such as universal background checks or mandatory firearm-ownership insurance?

The vast majority of people and politicians who oppose reasonable regulation of firearms as a means of minimizing gunshot-wound outbreaks are not themselves particularly at risk and probably have never seen a person with an untreated gunshot wound. To them, a gunshot wound does not emanate from the barrel of a firearm but from the poisoned mind of a person (who, by chance, happens to be wielding a firearm). Because many of the people in positions of power to combat gunshot-wound outbreaks--particularly conservative lawmakers and their supporters--seemingly fail to understand the synchronicity of gunshot wound outbreaks and firearm access, they regularly oppose even the slightest regulation of firearm access and ownership.

Having turned my thoughts onto the subject of educating lawmakers and the people they represent about the link between gunshot-wound outbreaks and firearms, I have found unavailing the existing methods of education, which seem to center on statistics and ideology-based shouting. It is no surprise that the current campaign has been remarkably unsuccessful, for as the Donald Trump phenomenon has shown, it is gut instinct and not rational thought that calls conservatives to action.

No one seems to deny that people in the United States suffer from an alarming rate of gunshot wounds. Rather, my inquiries suggest that a large number of people simply do not understand what a gunshot wound is or what causes it. This lack of knowledge, I believe, stems from a lack of imagery and direct exposure to gunshot victims. Simply put, most people have never seen images of gunshot wounds peppering an innocent person's body, had to identify the body of a gunshot sufferer, or met someone who has survived being shot.

Instead of being forced to visually confront the brutal reality of the country's gunshot-wound epidemic, most people only ever see images of victims smiling and enjoying life before it was taken from them by firearm-propelled shrapnel. These images of people whose lives are lost to gun violence allow us to normalize the gunshot-wound epidemic without fully reflecting on the moral implications of our society's dalliance with instruments created to maim and kill. This must change.

Firearm-safety advocates should begin to publish the gruesome photographs of every person in this country who suffers from a gunshot wound. To do so will force so-called "firearm enthusiasts" to confront the grisly reality caused by the objects of their enthusiasm, and it will keep the fire burning for those of us who support firearm-safety regulations.

The impact of using crass, disturbing, realistic visual aids to confront firearm enthusiasts and elected officials is not without precedent. For decades, abortion opponents have trotted out gory, sometimes inaccurate, images of aborted fetuses. While social science has been reluctant to deem the image campaign a success, it is unlikely anyone has seen these blown-up photos on placards in front of schools and health clinics without having a visceral reaction. Regardless of one's position on abortion, the visual aids cause an emotional reaction that is often lacking in news coverage of debates on firearm-induced murder.

The benefits of distressing but powerful visual aids have long been recognized. During the first Gulf War, for example, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney banned photography of soldiers' caskets returning to the United States. Cheney's policy remained intact through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The U.S. government prohibited Americans from seeing their children being rolled off Air Force jets en masse--regardless of parents' wishes. The lack of visual aid allowed the U.S. government to disassociate war and death, just as the lack of compelling imagery of gunshot wounds has helped conservatives disassociate lax gun restrictions and mass death.

With victims' (or their families') consent, much could be done to utilize the power of photography in the struggle for firearm-safety regulations. Photographs of people injured, maimed, and murdered by firearms could be blown up to larger-than-life sizes on placards and carried by protesters in front of government buildings throughout the country. Images of dead brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, moms, dads, friends, and relatives could be entered into the Congressional Record. The pictures of firearm-induced atrocities would be in legislators' mail, with letters from victims or their families. Gunshot-wound victims could bare their scars before lawmakers. Deceased victims might be memorialized by open-casket funerals blocking the doors to the U.S. Capitol. The images of each injured or fallen gunshot victim could be plastered on the sides of buildings, on billboards, and on the Internet for all to see. And every time another person succumbs to a gunshot wound, the campaign would begin anew.

Visual aids also will help solve another problem hampering the response to the gunshot-wound epidemic--the inability of many people to mentally process numbers greater than twenty (and, thus, the scale of the epidemic).

As the great philosopher Eddie Izzard put it, "We think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. If you kill ten people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. Twenty people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know."

But confronting the nation with photographs of gunshot-wound victims will compel us to deal with the tens of thousands of yearly injuries and deaths we have somehow normalized. Images will remind firearm-safety advocates why we must march resolutely to victory. Most importantly, photos of a gunshot wound's effect on sufferers will allow firearm enthusiasts to digest deaths one at a time, relieving them of the complex mental calculation required to process the atrocity of firearm-induced mass death. Then perhaps Congress and conservatives will work with the rest of us to do something meaningful to contain gun violence and prevent further gunshot-wound outbreaks.