Lecture, exhibit examine devastation caused by gun violence in America

Distinguished professor of history Michael Oberg (pictured above) gave a lecture on gun violence in coordination with Stephen McKenzie’s exhibit on Wednesday April 10 in the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery. “Gun Violence in America” is open from April 3 to May 4 (Annie Renaud/staff photographer).

Gun violence in the United States has become one of the most heated and polarizing issues in the country today. Political leaders and ordinary citizens alike have strong feelings about gun violence fueled by emotional anecdotes and a flurry of statistics coming from both sides. 

In order to discuss gun violence in a smaller, more intellectual setting, the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery hosted the history department’s Michael Oberg on Wednesday April 10 to give a talk about this issue at artist Stephen McKenzie’s latest exhibit, “Gun Violence in America.” 

The exhibit itself is a thought-provoking collection of gun advertisements paired with statistics and anecdotes chronicling the cost of gun violence. 

The exhibit includes 12 tapestries containing images of handguns along with in-depth information on the firearms’ features and price ranges that mimic gun advertisements’ style. Superimposed over these images is bold, red text describing articles and statistics critical of the sheer volume of guns in the U.S.

Oberg, whose main area of study focuses on Native American history, noted that his interest in studying gun violence stems not from his role as an objective historian but rather as “a person concerned about the 40,000 people who die from guns every year.” This stems from the death of a close friend’s teenage son who tragically took his own life using a handgun. 

Regarding the exhibit, Oberg appreciated the art on display but disagreed with the artist’s central message. Oberg criticized the fatalistic message that we are essentially doomed to live with this violence and rather asserted that it is possible to make better choices as well as engage people on both side of debate in Socratic dialogue to better deal with this issue.

Oberg referenced several powerful studies to show gun violence’s true cost, specifically from handguns, which take more lives in the U.S. than any other weapon. One of the most poignant statistics discussed noted that 19,000 people lose their lives to just handguns every year as a result of homicides, suicides and accidents. 

According to Oberg, this number is equivalent to one person losing their life every 14 minutes or a loss of life equal to “six 9/11s every year.” 

In addition to the sheer volume of guns in the U.S., Oberg also noted how gun culture in the U.S. promotes the violence we see today. 

Several studies conducted by Harvard University, the University of Chicago and other research institutions found that gun ownership mostly results from the anxieties of white men surrounding emasculation and race. This is corroborated by a Harvard study that notes that 3% of Americans own half of all the guns in the country and is mostly composed of “older, white men from rural, conservative areas.”  

This cultural component also concerns the Constitution, more specifically the second amendment, which essentially grants U.S. citizens the right to bear arms. This has often made the gun debate seem like an issue of rights and freedoms.

Regarding this point, Oberg noted that, “Nothing is sacred about the Constitution … it is a framework of government.” Rather than take the Constitution at face value, Oberg explained that the Constitution includes the ability to challenge and amend the document if need be. 

A questioning period led to an intriguing discussion between Oberg and associate professor Emeritus and retired Lieutenant Colonel James Williams concerning much of the gray area that exists in the gun violence debate, including the violence’s influence in media as well as the use of shotguns and rifles for the purpose of hunting and pest control for farmers. 

This was an excellent example of dialogue in action and showed how complex these issues truly are.

Overall, the exhibit serves as a terrific way to bring up constructive discussion regarding gun violence in the U.S. Oberg’s talk gave a tremendous amount of relevant historical and statistical information to provide a better context for the gun debate. 

While these issues are complex, it is important to remember how imperative it is to have meaningful conversations about this controversial topic.