Inspiring People

Author, Photojournalist, Filmmaker and a Liberal member of the NRA, Gerry Souter

Gerry Souter

Gerry Souter received his degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. He has worked as an art teacher, an officer for the Arizona State Guard and Detective Agency.

His creative experience as an international photojournalist, filmmaker, and award-winning video director, producer, and writer has been extensive. He and his wife, Janet, have authored and coauthored more than forty-eight nonfiction books in the areas of history, biography, young adult, art, military history, business, and the Internet. Recent titles include The Chicago Air and Water Show: A History of Wings above the Waves (History Press, 2010), The Vietnam War Experience (Carlton Books, 2008), Military Rifles-Fierce Firepower (Enslow, 2006) American Realism-10 American Painters (Sirrocco, 2009) and War in Afghanistan and Iraq (Carlton Books, 2011). They live near Chicago.

Few would disagree that the issue of gun ownership and our rights in this country to bear arms is a very controversial and sensitive topic. Recent events have put this topic front and center, once again. Gerry Souter offers a very unique perspective as a self described "Liberal member of the NRA". Shooting, as sport, provided Gerry with a sense of success as a young boy and the fact that he quickly became a skilled marksman, helped to build his self confidence and subsequently laid a foundation for his future as a photojournalist. Gerry contends that there is value in teaching kids how to use and respect guns.

DR: I want to say first off that you are talking to one of the most uninformed people about guns that you'd ever want to meet. That's one of the reasons I find this subject so fascinating. I just wanted to get that out up front...

GS: Well. I'm glad and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you, Dana.

DR: And I think one of the reasons that I find this so fascinating is because guns and gun rights is clearly an issue that has been used very successfully to divide the country. The things that I have noticed about myself in exploring you and your conversation about guns and shooting is that I am passively on one side of the issue as a result of perhaps, not really being fully informed. So, two things. I'd like to get your thoughts in general about the current state of the gun culture or gun controversy in this country and then I'd also like you to talk about how your passion for guns and shooting came about.

GS: My book, American Shooter: The Personal History of Gun Culture in The United States, is primarily focused on looking at the history of gun culture starting all the way back at Jamestown when the first pilgrims came ashore and frightened The Natives, to coming down to today and "mom" is putting a .38 automatic in a hidden pocket in her purse before she goes to the store. It's been quite a transition for all of those decades and the interesting part, for me, was in the 1950s when I kind of stumbled into the whole business.

I was twelve years old. I got my Boy Scout merit badge for marksmanship. That got me started, actually. My thing was, I was the kid that always got picked last. I couldn't throw a spiral. I couldn't hit the ball with a bat. If I put on skates I'd break something before I did anything graceful. My friends kept making up things that I could do so that I could at least hang with them anyway. I was the water boy. I was the catcher. I was anything where I couldn't mess up the game or get hurt. It was kind of tough until I got into Boy Scouts and discovered this merit badge. I suddenly discovered that I could hit a whole in the center of a target and do it every time. That got me going. The NRA (National Rifle Association) had a whole set of qualification medals that you could earn and once I got the merit badge I went on to win the qualification medals all the way up to expert. That gave me a confidence to go ahead and join The ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) in high school and the ROTC rifle team and I became co-captain of that. I was instructing National Guard troupes and helping them qualify with their M1 rifles.

Eventually I turned my shooting skills into photographic skills and became a photojournalist. I ended up as a filmmaker and a producer and a television director and then video, and in 1997 I got tired of lugging all of that equipment around and became a writer.

DR: So you would attribute the skills that you developed as a marksman to your transition into a photography and film career?

GS: Yes. Well it was a natural transition, really. As a marksman you are learning how to hold a rifle still, hold your breath, you squeeze slowly and "Bingo"! You get your shot. With a camera it's the same thing. With a long lens you hold and squeeze and you hold your breath...The difference with the camera, of course, after you've squeezed the shutter, whatever you've taken a picture of can walk out of the frame.

The camera has taken me all over the world as a journalist and to all sorts of different countries. I've met different kinds of people and I've had wonderful experiences, which is the fodder for a lot of my writing. Worked out quite well.

The NRA has been one of the great supporters of the sport in the United States, but around the 1950s right about the time of the communist witch hunts and right after the war, the NRA took a hard right turn and they just kept turning right. A certain belligerence started to creep in about making sure you have your gun rights, which is fine. Everybody realizes that the Supreme Court affirmed those rights, and guns as something that you should have. But the NRA has taken on this belligerence and this "chest beating". I call it "woof and stomp" bloviating that they have been doing to intimidate Senators and lawmakers and people running for office and commentators and building up a political action committee on the side.

The NRA has been a great steward of the sport, but they've gone astray. The problem is, they are fighting the good fight but in the wrong way. I believe the people who want to take and remove 270 million guns from American owners are barking up the wrong tree as well. It will never happen. These are the same folks that gave us the 18th amendment. That gave us prohibition and we know how well that worked out. Every time somebody starts to legislate morals it never seems to work. We are not that kind of a country. Americans aren't that stupid. Eventually they can smell a cause that is self-serving. I think that is one of the problems we have right now.

DR: My goodness...what do you think about the whole fast and furious controversy involving the Attorney General and as a result of that, what do you think about gun laws that are on the books in Arizona that would allow someone, for instance, to buy several guns in short periods of time and transfer ownership without paperwork...what do you think about those kinds of laws that allow for that kind of activity that runs so contrary to guns as sport?

Visit Gerry Souter's Blog: A Liberal in the NRA

Monday, July 16, 2012
Home, home on the Range

I love the smell of a firearms range in the morning. It smells like...action. Standing at the firing line and peering downrange at the waiting targets jumpstarts my motor. I was 12 when I first laid down on an old discarded mattress that reeked of dried little boy pee and dessicated mouse corpses in a crawl space under an old, old house and looked across the sights of a .22 rifle at a target suspended 50 feet away in a bullet trap, and pushed my first real cartridge into the rifle's breech. My very first shot drilled the center of the bullseye, as did my second and third shots. I was on my way to earning my Boy Scouts Marksmanship Merit Badge and discovering that I was not doomed to be an "also," or part of "the field" who always chases the winner across the finish line. My inability to clobber a baseball, throw a perfect football spiral, slapshot a puck into a net, sink a freethrow, or skate on wheels or blades was not going to keep me down. I could be a contender.

And that's how it all worked out. My shooting skills, resulting from hours and hours of practice and thousands of rounds blazed downrange punched my ticket. That golden time spent at the range allowed me to turn shooting skills into photographic skills ("hold...breathe...squeeze...") -- except with a camera, after I squeezed the shutter, my subject could walk out of the frame. From there, my shooting sports co-existed with my career as an international photojournalist, film and video documentary maker, television and video producer, director and writer -- and finally book author of U. S. Histories, military histories, biographies, fine arts volumes, auto racing and young adult books. In other words, a life of great adventure.

Shooting sports helped me bond with my father, crunching through the fall leaves in search of squirrels, rabbits or pheasants for the dinner table. The range provided a gathering place for some lasting friendships like Diane, the southpaw who could shoot rings around any guy on the line with .22 or a .30 caliber M1 rifle, who earned a Distinguished Rifleman's badge and had a great sense of humor. There was Gavin and Jim and Doc Meissner, the opthamologist and American Legion rangemaster who taught us all how to shoot and grow up while we were still in our teens.

I shoot casually with friends now, but I can still hear his voice, "Keep those muzzles pointed downrange! The longer you hold on a target, the unsteadier you get! Don't ever believe a gun is unloaded until you've personally checked it! More people get hurt on a tennis court or a golf course than on any well-run rifle range!"

Marksmanship is a gender-blind and age-proof sport that should be developed for spectator appeal and spun into the American Shooting Sport League with teams across the country. To realize that vision, we need more ranges and participation in a tradition that goes back to when our country was brand new and sharpshooters were held in high esteem.

Posted by "American Shooter" at 10:24 AM

GS: It's a two-problem deal here. Guns have been a part of our shooting tradition all the way back to The Revolution.

The idea of gun ownership and shooting for survival and for defense as we moved west – it's been part of the fabric of The United States and the growth of the country and consequently, after each war that we have had, what has driven the sales and the technology of guns has usually come from the Civil War, The War at Cuba, World War I, World War II – these all fed into the technology of the development of the gun. Along with the technology came the attitude of guns as weapons and considering them only as weapons. What happened is it started to erode the civilian use of guns as shooting sports. That is what set up the two camps and that's why I want to try and get a dis-connect between those two.

That is a big problem – the perception of the gun. For a kid to learn marksmanship takes the same rigor as learning golf or tennis or any other solo sport. It requires character. It requires respect and it's also much safer than tennis or gulf. Fewer people are hurt on rifle ranges than they are on golf courses.

DR: Is it your assertion then, that if we related more to guns in the context of marksmanship that the respect that would come out of that would change our relationship to guns?

GS: Absolutely. I'd like to see a National shooting sports league based on the model of NASCAR. Look at NASCAR. We had all of these young men down south driving through dark back roads, filled to the brim with moon shine, being chased by cops at 80 miles an hour and ending up a fireball at the foot of a big tree. They decided finally, that the way to test their souped up cars was to scoop out a race track in a pasture, charge people 25 cents a head to come and watch and "we'll race". Winner gets the pot. That's how NASCAR got started. I wrote a book on that, too. So that's a model that works and can work on any kind of a sport. You make it spectator friendly. People will come. And, the more people know about guns as firearms, as tools, as precision instruments, the less they are going to fear them and the more they are going to embrace the idea of an original, traditional sport.

When you talk about Arizona and their guns, I worked there in Arizona. I carried a gun for a living for a while as a member of the Arizona State Guard Detective Agency. I could walk down the street in Arizona with my pistol on my hip without any comment at all and yet if I put my coat over it I had to have a deputy's badge.

Whenever we had to do surveillance or anything we had to get a temporary deputy certificate in order to cover the gun with my coat. That always seemed kind of foolish. But that law goes back to the 1830s and 40s and the days that you could walk around bristling with guns. Some of the towns said, "Hey! You can't do that anymore. It looks too darn dangerous". But you could conceal guns. Okay? Then what did the law say about that? Well, what they did with the law was, if someone pulls a pistol and puts a shot in the other guy's boiler room and then claims "I was fearful that he would be able to draw a hidden gun so it was just a pre-emptive act on my part". A lot of guys got sprung because of that logic.

DR: The "stand your ground" laws...

GS: A little scary. Especially in this caffeinated civilization with road rage and things like that, people a little on edge, with work and the economy. It's not hard to get ticked off. Some people just have that need to display their superiority over their fellow man. Everybody knows somebody like that.

DR: Do you think that there is an exaggeration on the other side about the dangers of gun ownership or about the state of crime relative to gun ownership in the US?

GS: The unfortunate thing about the anti-gun people is they have the most loopy statistics that you would ever want to see. They do a lot of manufacturing. I call it their sweaty palm statistic gathering. They kind of have the right idea but to suggest that you are going to get rid of 270 million weapons, to suggest that every bullet should have a serial number put on it at no additional cost to the manufacturer, or if somebody shoots somebody we go after the gun manufacturer and not the person that shot the other guy – we tried that in California and they had to pass another law to get rid of it. This kind of herky-jerky kind of legislation does nobody any good. I think if both sides would spend a little time and common sense in looking at the whole situation – the guns aren't going to go away so if we embrace the good side of shooting and marksmanship and building character and having kids go for merit badges, I think we would be much better off.

DR: How do you think that would go over in the big cities?

GS: Well I grew up in Chicago. When I was a kid we put a range in the crawl space under this really old house and that's how we all got our merit badges. Later I joined the American Legion, post 175 on the south side, and those guys really treated me like an adult.

I was 15 years old when I joined the club and pretty soon I was shooting an M130 caliber army rifle in tournaments. They took time to teach. They took time to pay attention to different members and treat us like adults. It was a wonderful for us. It was a working class neighborhood and fathers didn't have a lot going on because they were all working heir tails to get food on the table. These guys took their time to help us out and then the shooting skills improved my schooling. My grades went up. I got a girlfriend. Things started happening because I gained the self-confidence that I could shoot. That was all mine.

DR: Do you agree that there is a demographic of young people who get their self-esteem from guns and sometimes in a different way than you are referring to?

GS: I look at it two ways in the book. When I was going to the Art Institute and I was working at a summer camp for disadvantaged boys up in Michigan and while we were there, a big grey county bus showed up with cyclone sensing across the windows. There were about twenty Black kids on the bus – big tough Black kids from the county juvenile home. There was a spill-over and they were having to wait for their trial dates and they had to put them somewhere and they didn't have anyplace else so, they brought them to this camp. They were the only Black kids in the camp and now I am the rifle instructor.

I took these guys over to the rifle range. I taught them how to shoot. I took a bar of heavy soap and put it down at the other end of the rifle range and put a .22 bullet in it and showed them how it blew the piece of soap to pieces and said "Now that's what can happen with a little .22. Now let's learn how to shoot".

Pretty soon the White kids who had been there earlier, I put one of them on each one of the Black guys and they started showing them how to do it and they were talking trash and everything but it turned into trash with a little more respect.

The one thing that made me feel good about the whole experience was that at the end of the week, when those kids had to get back on their bus and the people who brought them there made them empty their pockets of anything they may have picked up on the way and leave anything behind that they shouldn't have, the only thing that they didn't leave behind was the rifle merit badge. Not one of those kids left their merit badge behind. It became a matter of pride for these kids.

Kids have been given this myth that a gun gives you power. A gun is only a blunt dumb instrument. Power is conferred by whatever you are gong to use that gun on. It is only the context that gives it the power. If you shoot at a person, it's life and death. If you shoot at a target, it's a score. The gun isn't the problem. It's that kids are looking for respect. They are looking for self-esteem. They are looking for a job. They are looking for some kind of worth. They are looking for power in a powerless world. They are trapped. And, a gun for them, is this myth, "With the gun I have the power". No. You just have the gun. It's a social problem that can't be fixed by getting rid of the guns. It's got to be gotten rid of by working with the kids.

DR: You suggest in one of your recent blog posts that both sides of the gun issue are using the same argument. What is the argument and how do you think it will be resolved?

GS: Well the argument they use is fear. That is the basis for the entire argument.

Anti-gun people fear the people who have the guns. The people who want to protect the rights of people, they see an apocalyptic world. They see a world of crime. The NRA even sent a brochure to gun dealers that if you want to sell guns to women talk about rape. The more graphic you make it, the more hideous you make it, the more they'll want you to help them defend against it. It's that same kind of blind chest pumping sales technique they are using with legislators. They are using fear and the symbols of soldiers in combat – "We will confer upon you the noble abilities of soldiers in combat if you buy this particular gun".

The anti-gun people are saying that guns are dangerous and should be taken away from people and the sad thing about it is, that the guns that are used as weapons are mostly in the hands of people who have the least training.

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

GS: Well a hundred years from now if somebody remembers that I taught somebody how to feel good about themselves and how to take a skill and build it into something that they can achieve a success with, I think I'd feel very happy about that.

Thank you, Gerry!

American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States


Gun ownership has long been a hot-button topic in the United States, and the National Rifle Association has the reputation of being an organization of primarily politically conservative members. American Shooter provides a unique look at gun ownership, handgun bans, shooting sports, and the controversy over how to interpret the Second Amendment from the point of view of a liberal gun owner and enthusiast.

Gerry Souter examines the history of firearms in the United States, from the settlers who carried matchlock muskets ashore at Jamestown to the citizens who purchase guns in record numbers today. Recent Supreme Court decisions that uphold the right to bear arms have galvanized citizens on both sides of the debate, making the gun issue hotter than ever. To provide a personal view, Souter weaves in tales of his own experiences with guns, including sport shooting as a young man, hunting and bonding with his father, and facing the smoking end of a muzzle as an international photojournalist.

American Shooter is both a history and a personal journey that traces the path of American gun ownership culture from the Revolution to today. It recounts how the country has lived with guns from the flintlock hung over the fireplace to the concealed-carry, laser-sighted Glock semiautomatic pistol tucked away in the hidden pocket of a mom’s purse.

Click here to learn more and buy your copy of American Shooter.

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