Should the U.S. Create a National Memorial for Gun Violence?

Though memorials are underway to honor victims of the Sandy Hook, Pulse, and Las Vegas shootings, MASS Design Group’s Gun Violence Memorial Project is the closest the U.S. has to a memorial to mass shootings. One critic argues that the country urgently needs a memorial to gun violence on the National Mall.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin in Washington, D.C.

One week ago, Salvador Ramos opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, fatally shooting 19 students and two teachers, and wounding 17 others. Earlier in May, a racially motivated mass shooting resulted in the deaths of ten Black people at a Buffalo supermarket; a similar incident targeted Asian churchgoers in Southern California. These three tragedies, coupled with the alarming frequency of mass shootings in the United States, are again provoking familiar discussions about gun culture, political gridlock, and law enforcement in what feels like a never-ending cycle. 

One new idea to emerge from the latest wave of mass shootings comes from art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott. Writing in the Washington Post, he says now is the time for the United States to create a dedicated memorial to gun violence in Washington, DC. “The memorial should be imposing, sobering, and monumental. It should include the names of every victim of gun violence, which is, of course, impracticable, but that’s the point. It must be large enough that no tour bus can pass by without someone on board asking: What is that? Why is it there? Why are they still hammering names on its wall and how can we make them stop?” He suggests placing the memorial on a plot of land north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool—the last large open space close to the Capitol—contiguous with the Peace Monument. 

The Gun Violence Memorial Project by Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group. Image courtesy of the National Building Museum

Beyond those descriptors, Kennicott doesn’t suggest what the memorial should look like. He points out the Gun Violence Memorial Project, a striking installation conceived by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group that debuted at the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2019 and is now on view at Washington’s National Building Museum. Featuring four house-like structures made of glass bricks, it’s equipped with niches in which the families of gun violence victims can place mementos of their lost loved ones. “It’s an ever-changing testimony to love, loss, and life,” says MASS Design Group founder Michael Murphy. “With each story, the entire memorial changes and grows.” According to Kennicott, the only feature it lacks when scaled up is a central site for public gathering—a place where, he says, “thoughts are specific and prayers are articulated publicly.”

Elsewhere around the country, numerous memorials to specific mass shootings are underway (Sandy Hook, Pulse, and Las Vegas) but not yet finished—a testimony to the frequency of these incidents in recent years, the fraught political approval process, and the complexities that designers must address to create thoughtful places of contemplation. Of course, there are great hurdles to building new memorials and monuments in D.C. because they can be extremely polarizing. But is it a good idea? 

Celebrating the thousands who’ve succumbed to gun violence with a well-conceived place on the National Mall makes a major statement. It elevates the scourge of mass shootings—and politicians hindering gun control legislation—to the historical gravity shared by memorials to the Vietnam War, Civil War, and World War II. If gun violence ever abates, Kennicott says, it should be demolished. “Let’s hope that one day, for a full day, the bell never tolls, and the masons chiseling names on the walls can put down their tools.”

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