On Oct. 25, a pleasant conversation over breakfast was interrupted when the words “Inside The Gun Debate” appeared on the television screen. I stopped mid-sentence as “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King introduced a Time magazine cover over the subhead, “Time Interviews People On All Sides Of The Issue.” Gun owners have come to expect a browbeating at the hands of the “mainstream” media, so I turned up the volume and resigned myself to enduring yet another election-year thrashing.
But said thrashing never came.
Present in the studio were Time’s Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal and French artist JR, who described their ambitious project—interviews, video and photos of 245 Americans across the country, representing all sides of the issues surrounding gun rights. The result was an impressive artistic achievement, resembling da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”on steroids. The interactive “mural” featured all 245 interviewees gathered around a single table, many of them moving, waving placards, bearing arms and gesticulating to make their points. Clicking on each portrait revealed an audio recording of them recounting their stories, unedited.
Behind-the-scenes video showed JR sketching storyboards and directing photo sessions. I recognized one of his subjects as she flashed across the screen in her competition jersey, bearing an AR-15.
I picked up my phone and texted world and national champion shooter Dianna Muller.
The scope of the special issue, titled “Guns In America,” was daunting. Finding, coordinating and documenting so many voices was challenging enough, but the goals for an immersive digital experience that could be exported nationwide seemed naive. After all, gun owners’ suspicions are always aroused when someone wants to have a “national conversation about gun rights.”
JR called me at 1:30 a.m. Paris time, awaiting a flight to New York. He was straightforward when asked why he chose guns in America as his subject. “Because it’s an issue that I have very little knowledge about, and because I want to learn more about it,” he said.
At home, he’s only experienced one side of guns. “In France, we have had bad experience, but (guns) haven’t been in our culture; we just had the trauma of it,” he said. “I just came back from Bataclan, where the attacks happened three years ago, on this exact same date, the 13th of November. I was there with my friend, musician Yo-Yo Ma. Yesterday, he was playing for President Trump and Putin and Macron under the Arc de Triomphe, for the 100th anniversary of the end of the first World War; now, he was just playing for seven people in the street who happened to be walking by.
“I’ve met a lot of people through the project who explained the passion, the culture. ... I have all points of view. When you have people who have their own very personal stories, ... who am I to judge those stories? I was lucky enough they would share them with me.
“It left me with more questions than answers. That’s my role as an artist: to raise questions, not give answers.”
Mia Tramz, Time’s executive producer, described the measures taken to guard against bias.
“Our reporters are from all parts of the country,” she said. “Abby Abrams, who was one of the lead reporters and one of two who cast the 245 people, is from St. Louis. She comes from a culture of gun ownership.
“We had many conversations about how important it was to be very sensitive to their points of view. We had Abby and Melissa Chan, our other reporter, work up a list of terms, both for correctly covering the subject matter and for respectfully talking about it. We made all of the crew become familiar with it before the photo shoot.” Even the security detail was briefed on engaging all parties respectfully.
Time’s project sounded legit.
I reached Muller in New York City, where she had been invited to participate in the launch of Time’s “Guns In America” issue. She texted back, “Yes! Big day! Meeting the editor-in-chief in an hour, launch with panel discussion at an art gallery tonight!”
NRA members know Muller as captain and longtime member of Benelli’s 3-Gun team, and as a 22-year veteran of the Tulsa, Okla., Police Department. She is a credible and articulate defender of gun rights. As the founder of the DC Project, she recruits female gun enthusiasts from all 50 states for an annual trip to meet with legislators in Washington, D.C.
Muller created the DC Project with a simple goal: “I wanted to create an opportunity for legislators to meet a real gun owner and 2a supporter, and invite them to the range to educate them and/or their staff about firearm safety. We don’t fit the stereotype of a gun owner, and often we can have a stronger impact when talking about the Second Amendment.”
Muller said she initially was cautious about working with Time. “It was really difficult to understand the project, and to trust that Time would be fair to me as a gun owner. But I thought, ‘If I don’t do this, they’ll find someone else to represent the gun side, and I’d rather it be me.’” Through her relationships in the shooting community, Muller recruited another 12 women and four men for Time.
After shooting a match in Missouri, she drove to St. Louis for a photo shoot. “Going in blind,” she met JR and the Time staffers face-to-face for the first time.
“JR was very kind-hearted, very down-to-earth, no air about him at all. His goal is to bring people together,” she said. JR disarmed Muller with a story about traveling to Israel and Palestine for a similar mural project: Both sides were kind and welcoming to him, yet both warned him not to go to the other side because, “They are crazy and they’ll kill you.”
Muller had praise for the Time staffers, as well. When asked if she felt any bias from them, she was quick to say: “Not at all. Several of the Time staff said the experience was eye-opening for them. I didn’t press them; I took it as a positive thing.” For the interview process, Time allowed Muller to speak without interruption: “There was no hostility, no argument, just my thoughts. I thought that was a good way to make sure that everyone had a voice.”
“The issue is much grayer than it’s so often portrayed in our conversation.”Edward Felsenthal Editor-In-Chief, Time Magazine
Former Venezuelan Olympian and current firearms instructor Gabby Franco agreed.
“I was concerned about the transparency of the ‘JR x Time’ project,” Franco said. “I shared the same concerns: ‘Are they going to make us look evil because we have firearms, or twist our words?’
“To my surprise, it was fun and relaxed; the audio portion was the most emotional and open-hearted talk I have had with a total stranger (JR’s audio specialist, Eyal Levy). I was speaking from my heart to his soul. I cried. He got emotional, too, and we hugged before I left the room.”
Megan Boland is a DC Project volunteer representing Virginia. She also participated in the Time project.
“I had an internal debate from when I agreed to the project up until it was published,” she said. “It’s difficult to trust that gun owners will be given equal, unedited airtime.
“Time and JR’s staff treated me professionally and fairly. I was happily surprised that, not only were my positions respected in the final product, but those of the other women of the DC Project were, as well.”
Gina Roberts, a DC Project participant from San Diego, echoed those same fears. But like the others, her fears were allayed.
“I think a lot of us were very tepid about interfacing with Time,” she said. “We all talked and came to the conclusion that if we didn’t have the conversation with Time, then we would have no control over what would be quoted.
“I was thrilled with the mostly unbiased approach of the magazine. I really want to have a useful and meaningful conversation on this subject. I’m tired of being blamed as the cause of all gun violence when I work tirelessly to reduce accidental and criminal deaths from firearms.”
To his credit, Time’s Felsenthal even came to NRA’s defense when cbs host Bianna Golodryga interjected, “We should note the NRA declined to participate.” Felsenthal replied, “NRA members are part of it.”
Indeed, Time had submitted an online request to NRA’s Catherine Mortensen, of NRA Public Affairs, for an interview. “We get these requests all the time,” Mortensen told a1f. “We always have concerns about being treated fairly.” Those concerns are, of course, rooted in years of experiences with Time that don’t need mentioning here.
Following a policy of not lending its credibility to news sources with an anti-gun bias, NRA declined Time’s invitation to participate in an official capacity. Instead, Mortensen forwarded the request to Muller, to whom she often hands off media requests.
Mortensen has high praise for the DC Project. “Dianna’s group is phenomenal,” she said. “They’re always willing to go out there and speak their truth on a tough issue. I love the women of the DC Project.”
Muller was selected to represent the pro-gun contingent at the project’s launch gala in New York City; Dallas youth mentor and former gang leader Antong Lucky represented the anti-gun side. After the horrendous Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, Time asked the two of them for their takeaways from the project.
Lucky answered: “One of the things going in is we were staunchly saying ban assault rifles and bump stocks and saying that strongly. … But after being involved in the project and being able to listen to both sides, and after spending the day with Dianna and listening to her, I was able to change my perspective on that in terms of the ban. Because I do believe it’s our inalienable right to bear arms and protect ourselves. The project changed my mind because I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying our Second Amendment should be under attack.”
Muller replied: “I would love to tell you that I heard one of their stories and that it has changed my position, that I feel like there should be more gun control. But especially after the latest tragedy—the latest shooting—it has nothing but solidified my position that I want for more people to be armed. I want for American citizens to arm themselves and protect themselves. So I can’t say the same, that the project has changed my heart or my mind in favor of gun control.”
These two answers reflect the profound information gap on firearm policy between gun-rights supporters and opponents.
Advocates tend to be deeply involved in hunting, training, self-defense, competition, etc., which require greater familiarity with gun issues, rights and responsibilities. Gun control proponents, on the other hand, tend to be motivated by outrage at horrific events, personal tragedy, peer pressure or endless media coverage. While understandable, this kind of outrage does not qualify as a substitute for accurate information.
I recommend reading Kevin Williamson’s Oct. 28 nationalreview.com article on political anger, “Rage Makes You Stupid.” In that article, Williamson wrote, “People have the strongest feelings about the things they know least about.”
“People who actually know about any subject of genuine interest understand that such subjects tend to be complicated, and that expressions of outrage, however cathartic, do not render them any less recondite,” he concluded.
Time’s Felsenthal also hoped for a reduction in rage, writing: “What drew me to this collaboration was the hope that [JR’s] creativity and outsider’s perspective could help those of us in America think differently about this debate, and the many others where rage too often substitutes for discourse.”
Gun owners can only hope he’s successful. We believe that when understanding prevails, so does the human right of self-defense.
On Oct. 26, as Muller was helping to put up the New York City mural, she remarked to her nephew, “I wonder how long it’s going to take for this to get vandalized.” It happened sooner than Muller probably thought: Over the weekend, a large red “11” was painted down the middle, in obvious reference to the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue murderer. Red paint was also splattered over some of the professional shooters.
Time’s Tramz reacted by saying, “We considered doing something about it, but we finally decided that JR’s art is meant to start conversations, and that this was part of the conversation,” she said. Gun owners will recognize it as the intolerant part.
We don’t blame Time for the actions of others. We believe JR when he told cbs, “In France, where I come from, we don’t have guns like that. I live here in the U.S. for six years. ... I’m also really naive about it, so I asked people to tell me their story, and I haven’t changed a word of it.”
We also credit Time’s Felsenthal, who told CBS, “We listened to these 245 voices, and they learned from each other, and we learned from them.”
In the end, the Time staff deserves credit for providing a platform for gun-rights advocates to have their voice, unedited and uninterrupted. Gun owners don’t expect Time writers to become their cheerleaders overnight; they just want a fair shake, and they got it. Playing on a slanted field has left them jaded, but the members of the DC Project all expressed relief and gratitude at Time’s final product.
Now, we ask, does this represent a shift back to balance on gun-rights issues, or will it just become a footnote in mainstream media’s crusade to curtail the Second Amendment?
Only Time will tell.
Clay Turner is the creative director of NRAs America’s 1st Freedom magazine.