IN 1791 the Bill of Rights enshrined "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" alongside the right to freedom of speech. America was a land of frontiersmen for whom menace lurked on the horizon. It was also a nation, as de Tocqueville marvelled, where the people were sovereign. The individual was king and the gun was his sceptre.
Today, the gun remains the defining icon of American culture, for Americans as well as for the world. Daniel Boone, Wyatt Earp and George Patton (who rode to battle packing two ivory-handled pistols) are the heroes of American popular history; Jesse James, Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde the cherished anti-heroes. Hollywood found John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to keep the symbols alive, and created Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to provide hi-tech variations on the themes.
In late 20th-century America, lawlessness is predominantly an urban phenomenon. Law-abiding citizens carry guns as precautions, as pragmatic responses to real dangers. But it is the men and women of the hinterland who preserve a sense of the gun as a noble emblem of American tradition. In the small towns of upstate New York, of Michigan, of Montana, the dangers are less great, but the ancient myths are more enduring. The idea lingers that an American who does not own a gun is not a true patriot. The people of Middle America fly the Stars and Stripes outside their homes and gather at gun clubs to reinforce their sense of community. On weekends, they take their kids to gun shows, and buy a small $50 pistol "for mom's birthday".
These Americans have felt assailed these last 20 years by the emergence of a movement seeking to inhibit their constitutional right to bear arms. It is no accident that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies - second only to the Israeli lobby in terms of influence, some insiders say. Like the Israelis, they feel under threat. Last year the Democrats passed legislation banning the commercial sale of assault rifles. Bob Dole, the leading Republican contender for the 1996 presidential election, succumbed in March to NRA blandishments and promised to fight for the law's repeal. Bill Clinton, backed by the majority of America's police chiefs, had declared in his State of the Union address in January that so long as he remained president the law would remain on the books. The figures are on Clinton's side (in 1993, 2,420 homicides took place in New York State; the figure for the whole of England and Wales that year was 670), for they lay bare the truth that the United States is a far more violent place than other developed countries with strict gun control laws. Every time a madman opens up with an automatic in a family food outlet, or a schoolchild fires a shot inside a classroom, the clamour grows for Americans' security to be given priority over their 18th-century constitutional rights. The slaughter in Oklahoma and the gun-obsessed environment which bred the bombers has raised the clamour to a new pitch.
Yet this is an issue which defies logic, for it brings into play questions of national identity whose answers lie more in the gut than in the head. Joan Barker, who is from upstate New York, took these photographs as part of a project undertaken since 1991. Her greatest concern, she says, is that those who see them should emerge with a keener sense, not of her countrymen's foibles, but of their complexity.
! Joan Barker's photographs are part of the exhibition "Pulp Fact" at the Photographer's Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2, from 19 May to 17 June (telephone: 0171-831 1772).
'THE PACIFIER', 1992: Mark, who runs an office repair business, came upstate for …