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Shooting Proud, Legal Gun Owners (with a Camera)

Photographer Ben Philippi spent four years working on "God, Guns & Guts," a visually striking celebration of gun-toting patriots exercising their rights. His subjects are welcoming people who shoot magnums in their spare time instead of running model...

by Ben Makuch
Aug 14 2012, 7:00pm

There’s been no shortage of appalling gun rampages this summer, considering the shootings at a Toronto mall or backyard BBQ, the Batman shooter in Colorado, or the racist lunatic who shot up a Sikh temple during his fucked up skinhead wet dream. If you’re a legal gun owner or enthusiast you’re shit out of luck when it comes to positive PR, especially when it seems like everybody with a gun and a mental illness is turning their weapons against innocent people every other day. That’s why when photographer Ben Philippi published his latest book God, Guns & Guts, a visually striking celebration of proud, legal gun owners across America, we knew we had to talk to the man who spent close to four years among gun-toting patriots. What he found was a group of welcoming people who shoot magnums in their spare time instead of running model trains, and are largely misunderstood because of it.

VICE: Why the name God, Guns & Guts?
Ben Philippi: It’s a saying that exists in America. I didn’t make it up. It was really the suggestion of Mark Muller, who’s on the cover of my book. I first saw him back in 2009 on CNN being interviewed about a promotion he was having at his car dealership in Missouri called “God, Guns, Guts and American Pickup Trucks.” The name hit a note with me, but it was two years later while I was visiting him and talking about titles for the book when he was like, “You should call it God, Guns & Guts ‘cause it’s controversial and it’s going to piss off a lot of Democrats.”

This is the guy that was giving away AK-47s with every purchase of a car, right?
That promotion all came out of something I later found out that Obama said, which was something to the effect of, “Those poor people in the Midwest are clinging to their Bibles and their guns.” Mark heard that and said, “You know what? Fuck that prick, I’m going to give away free guns with the purchase of a car from my dealership.” He didn’t just hand people a gun though. He gave them a voucher that meant they needed to have background checks before you could receive the gun at a store. The people who saw this promotion really latched onto it because to them it meant something more and had to do with how they felt about the government. Then a year after all of that, he did “Snipers for Vipers.”

"Snipers for Vipers"?
Yeah, he gave away .50 caliber sniper rifles with the purchase of a viper. Those are legal weapons that can take out an airplane or hit somebody from two miles away, if you have a good shot.

So I take it Mark is one of your favorite characters you met during the completion of the book?
Definitely. I remain in personal contact with a lot of my subjects. He was my favorite though, and we’ve ended up becoming really good friends. Actually I just shot a teaser for a reality TV show that he’s going to star in with his brother, a radio jockey in Chicago named Mancow Muller, about his crazy selling antics.

How did you actually find all of the people in this book?
While I was living in LA I started posting ads on Craigslist in the talent section saying, “Would you like to be photographed with your guns?” The only stipulation was that you had to own a real gun. The response was overwhelming, and one person led to another. Some people were hesitant because they didn’t know why I wanted to do this project and thought I was out to exploit them.

Well why did you decide to do it?
Basically after 9/11 I saw that America’s military was becoming the Military Industrial Complex that we all feared. I thought, this isn’t good. War’s not the answer, unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’m a hippie libertarian in that way. But what I was really interested in was how it was also the American people who were buying more guns. There are almost enough guns in the States to arm every citizen. So I was interested to see if there was a correlation between the two; a powerful people and a powerful army. For a lot of people guns are a metaphor for freedom, independence, and being able to control your surroundings or defend yourself. All the people I met with in the book were legal gun owners, not gangsters or anything—these were legal, unashamed gun owners.

Right now people are really demonizing gun owners. In your experiences what do they actually look like in the States?
There are all kinds, really. There are people who are generally interested in them, just like somebody who’s into cars or stamps. There are hunters, people who like to target shoot, and there are the people who are ultimately paranoid that the government is going to bust through their door and stick a gun in their face and arrest them for something they didn’t do. There are also the people who are afraid that the economy is going to crash or there’s going to be a natural disaster, and they have stockpiles of rice and guns. A good example is Hurricane Katrina, where some people were able to defend their homes after doing stuff like that. A lot of people in LA cited the LA Riots as a perfect reason to own a gun.

Would you say gun owners do separate on Republican and Democratic lines?
It’s definitely a left and right thing. But there are a lot of Democrats with guns. That being said, I’d say the majority of gun owners are Republicans or Libertarians, no question about it. They’re way more armed.

A lot of your photos are people with cigars, sunglasses, and cowboy hats. Was it their choice to dress themselves that way?
I think that look is how some gun owners see themselves or present themselves. I think these people are discriminated against as gun owners and want to be covert in the background, don’t necessarily want to be singled out. Some thought if the government saw them in the book they could identify them so they put on more of a disguise. Keeping a low profile for them, in case shit hits the fan, was key. It’s better to be unknown and fly under the radar.

Do some people just buy guns just for collecting and not necessarily for self-defense?
A good example of that is this cop named Ike who’s a really cool guy, very inviting and hospitable. He took me into his house and in this room with like a sliding wall that has a collection with a hell of a lot of guns and a gun range inside. He’s just a really proud gun owner who’s more of a hobbyist than anything. I photographed him with a Tommy gun from the 30s that was a collector’s item because it once belonged to a gangster who died with it, and there was a legitimate blood stain on the wood panelling. It was really cool, truly a beautiful thing. Anybody would look at that and be like, “This is really fucking cool.”

Were there a lot of female gun owners approaching you to be photographed?
You know, women buying guns is the most emerging market in gun sales. It’s huge right now, like pink guns, guns small enough to put in your purse… there was this one girl in Las Vegas named Sara Jane and she bought a gun because her house was broken into and the only thing the robber stole was all of her underwear. I mean, the strip of Las Vegas is like a giant toilet bowl in the hot sun with a lot of seedy people, so she was concerned enough to go buy a gun for her own self-defense. And she’s not a violent person at all, but a hippie who goes to Burning Man every year.

What is your take on gun ownership and governmental control?
I think legal gun owners almost never are the people committing gun crime. I think as long as you’re not a criminal and go through the legal steps to own a gun, you should be allowed to, and if you own one it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person who wants to kill people. When you buy guns in the States you have to provide a background check, but the guy in Colorado was clearly psychologically unsound and shouldn’t have been allowed to, so somewhere somebody fucked up. Legal gun owners are the last people in the world who are going to hurt somebody. There are even incidents where people carrying guns can save people. I was in Bosnia in the 90s and these people were victimized by the Yugoslav Army and they desperately needed guns to fight this incredibly overpowering force. Eventually they did, and saved themselves from a potential holocaust because the UN wasn’t doing shit.

How has the reception to your book been in the gun community?
A lot of gun owners in the States think it’s inaccurate but I think they might be paranoid or skeptical. They think there’s a prejudice against them and they think my book makes them look menacing. I just don’t think they should care about what people think about them. I think this is an art book and a celebration saying there’s nothing shameful about owning a gun. God Bless America.

Check out a special book preview Ben made specifically for VICE here and the Facebook group here.

Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter @BMakuch