Gun Violence Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte: Please Take My Gun

I was never afraid when I had my first pistol in my pocket, which is why I’m so very afraid now.
The logo of Beretta on the grip of a Beretta 92 9 mm pistol.  [Earl / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Robert Lipsyte | TomDispatch

The gun I carried on the streets of New York City in the late 1960s was a Beretta, similar to the pistol James Bond packed in the early Ian Fleming novels. It was a small, dark beauty that filled me with bravado. I was never afraid when I had it in my pocket, which is why I’m so very afraid now.

I was packing it illegally, but I knew that a white man in a suit and tie was unlikely to be stopped by the police and frisked, even in a city with some of the strictest gun laws in the country — laws that may soon be swept away if the Supreme Court continues what seems to be its holy war on democracy. In fact, its justices are expected to rule this month in a case that challenges New York’s constitutional right to deny anyone a permit to carry a firearm. That state’s current licensing process allows only those who can prove a “special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” That means you can’t pack heat just because you want to feel stronger and braver than you are or because you feel threatened by people who look different from you.

It also means that you can’t enjoy the privileges of the past. In his history of gun rights in this country, Armed in America, Patrick Charles quotes this from a piece in a 1912 issue of the magazine Sports Afield: “Perfect freedom from annoyance by petty lawbreakers is found in a country where every man carries his own sheriff, judge, and executioner swung on his hip.”

Sadly enough, carrying such firepower is thrilling, oppressive, and often leads to calamity as hundreds of police officers and the would-be neighborhood defender George Zimmerman, the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, found out. It was something I, too, came to understand. Let me tell you how.

The Hunter

The Beretta was not my first gun. That was a .22 bolt-action Savage Arms rifle that my favorite uncle insisted I needed to grow into true manhood. My dad was against harboring a gun in the house, but the masculinity argument must have swayed him. He had been too old for the Army and not having served disturbed him. Uncle Irving was his best friend and a World War II vet.

I was around 12 years old, about the age most kids in gun-owning families are first armed. I was an avid fan of the Western movies of that era, which were always resolved by a gunfight. The idea of owning a gun, that symbol of manhood, genuinely excited me. Somehow, because there were so many rules and restrictions, target practice became a duty, as well as a guilty pleasure. (Many years later, I spoke with an Army sergeant who described shooting as unlimited orgasms for less than six cents each.)

In my early teens, I enjoyed plinking away in the woods, knocking off cans and bottles (Indians and outlaws, of course) until the inevitable need to actually kill something became uncontainable. I had to test myself. I was a responsible kid and heeded my dad’s ban on shooting at birds and squirrels, even rattlesnakes, but I finally begged permission to go after the rabbit pillaging mom’s vegetable garden.

I got it on the first shot!

And that was the beginning of my conflict.

It just didn’t feel as good as I had dreamt it would, even though my hunting partner, my kid sister, cheered, while my parents appeared both dismayed and impressed. In death, the marauder of our food supply turned out to be just a hungry little bunny.

Was there something missing in the experience or maybe in me, I wondered? Where was the joy I expected in actually gunning something down? Nevertheless, I paid lip-service to what I thought I should have felt, turning the backyard ambush into the equivalent of an Ernest Hemingway safari, a tale told heroically until it became satirical. (Hemingway was my generation’s avatar of toxic masculinity in literature and in life. And, of course, he killed himself with a gun.)

My sister and I skinned our prey and kept those dried-out rabbit’s feet for years. But ever since, the idea of hunting, if nothing gets eaten, seemed noxious to me and, as the years passed, I began to think of sport hunters as the leatherette men, a gang of poseurs.

Though I kept that rifle, I never fired it again.

The Shootist

Covering police stories early in my newspaper career, I found myself regularly around guns that were almost never drawn on duty, weapons worn by men and women mostly discomforted by their weight and bulge. But I found that I was still fascinated by them. It was only the idea of using them for hunting that bothered me then, not guns themselves.

Still, weapons training in the Army in 1961 turned out to be no fun. The instructors were even more restrictive than Dad and I proved to be a mediocre shot at best.

Basic training turned out to be boring and disappointing. I had, at least, hoped to get myself in better shape and work on some of those manly arts that were still on my mind, like hand-to-hand combat. But that didn’t happen. After basic, I was dumped into clerk/typist school, the Army’s numbing attempt to teach soldiers to be all they could be by doing paperwork. The secretarial training drove me so crazy that I went on sick call and started spending nights in the beer garden at Fort Dix, which only made everything worse.

Then, one night, en route to getting wasted again, I wandered into a free shooting range sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Oh, joy!

Unlimited orgasms, rifles and handguns, jolly instructors. I was still gripped by the fantasy of manly fun. The next thing I knew, I had joined the NRA by mailing in a card from one of its magazines. My mood lifted and, incredibly, I graduated at the top of my clerk/typist class. I then floated through the rest of my six-month active-duty enlistment in the Army information office, trigger happy all the way.

Back in civilian life, writing sports stories for the New York Times in the early 1960s, I discovered that my manhood credentials were unassailable, especially to the guys I now think of as the Bystander Boys. Those were the everyday dudes who genuflect to alpha males, especially the sports heroes they assumed I drank with. Those were specious creds, although it would take me years more to figure that out. Back then, I wasn’t yet paying attention to the various kinds of faux manhood that were around me everywhere. Quite the opposite, I was living my own version of it. Especially when I got my beautiful little Beretta.

My frat house roommate Marty, a naval officer, brought back one for each of us from a Mediterranean cruise. It fit our fantasy lives then. After all, we’d both studied combat judo with a drunken ex-Marine on a tough street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We were both delusional apprentice bad asses at a time when actor Humphrey Bogart was considered a profile in manhood. We liked the way he smoked and handled a gun in his films. In addition, we had both read the James Bond novels and were proud that 007’s early pistol of choice, the Beretta, was now ours, too.

The Gunslinger

To say that I felt bigger and harder with the Beretta in my pocket is true, even if it reduces the experience to a phallic cartoon (which, of course, is just what it was). But there was more. It was proof that I was neither weak, nor soft, and didn’t have to feel as vulnerable as I actually did covering stories on the mean streets of the city. It meant I could walk at night in the South Bronx assuming that I’d be able to respond to anything, that I would never have to run or surrender my wallet to some teenaged mugger.

So went my weaponized imagination then. I felt primed for action. I was daring the world, strolling through New York with what I took to be the pigeon-toed rolling swagger of that classic star of so many cowboy and war movies, John Wayne. I even began to fancy that I projected a dangerous aura that would intimidate anyone with bad intentions toward me.

Soon enough, I knew, that feeling of invulnerability would have to be tested. The emotional weight of that gun seemed to demand it. I would have to use it and it wouldn’t be on a rabbit this time.

I felt feverish with the desire for (and terror of) engagement. I suspect that a kind of temporary insanity set in, that I was gun crazy, drowning in testosterone — and the memory of that gives me a feeling for the state of mind of the mad boys now regularly slaughtering people in our country. And here was the strangest thing in retrospect: I don’t remember ever thinking that I didn’t really know how to use that gun, that I’d had no training with it, never even fired it. And in those days, there was no YouTube to show me how.

And then came one lunatic night on Manhattan’s lower East Side. For a magazine story, I was shadowing a young doctor who worked for a non-profit group visiting sick kids in their squalid rooms. Nervous that the drugs and syringes he was carrying in his medical bag might make him a target, he was hugging the shadows of the dark street as we made our way to his car, half a block away. Suddenly, a group of loud young men appeared, drinking beer. The doctor grabbed my arm. He wanted to duck back into the building we had just walked out of.

Filled with bravado, however, I pulled him along, my other hand in my pocket. I was suddenly on fire in a way that reminded me of my teen self and the rabbit. No punks were going to chase me off that street. I glared at them. They glared right back, but then separated so we could walk quickly through them to our car. I promptly flopped into the passenger seat, suddenly exhausted, wiped out by my own stupidity, my own madness.

Just thinking about it now, almost 60 years later, my spine tingles, my muscles lock, and I feel a deep sense of shame, especially for endangering that young do-good doctor. And the possible outcome, had I done something truly stupid? I imagine the gun snagging on my pocket lining as I tried to pull it out for the first time and shooting myself in the foot or, far worse, shooting someone else. I never carried a gun again.

The Unarmed

When I gave the Beretta back to Marty, I told him only a piece of the truth.  I said I was afraid of getting busted with it in a city with such rigorous gun laws. I promised to visit the pistol in California, where he would soon be living. And I did. I shot it there for the first time at a commercial range, along with Marty’s new .45. He was rapturous, but I was just going through the motions. There was no excitement or pleasure. I had changed.

I was done with guns and felt like a fool for ever thinking differently. But because of my experience I do understand why, in this thoroughly over-armed land of ours, so many others consider such weaponry (and far more powerful and deadly versions) so important to who they are. Having experienced a sense of that identity myself, I don’t look down on them for it. And I understand that behind the mostly male pleasure in being armed can lie complex feelings. As historian Adam Hochschild noted in the New York Review of Books several years ago:

“The passion for guns felt by tens of millions of Americans also has deep social and economic roots. The fervor with which they believe liberals are trying to take all their guns away is so intense because so much else has been taken away.”

Even more troubling is that many of them believe they will need those guns for defense against the rampaging gangs (calling themselves militias?) that would rise after the possible collapse of American democracy as we’ve known it, which any number of armed men don’t trust to protect them anyway. (Thank you, Donald Trump, most Republicans, and, alas, my old benefactor the NRA!)

Is stocking up on AR-15s and thousands of rounds of ammunition paranoia or preparation? While a Beretta would never be enough, it turns out that such lesser guns have done most of the damage to Americans. Mass murders with military-style automatic rifles, especially school shootings, have reaped so much of the attention, but it’s been handguns that have killed far more Americans every year, most often via suicide (which is why it’s so sad to see so many of us increasingly arming ourselves to the teeth).

More than half of the 45,222 gun-related deaths in 2020, the last year for which we have solid statistics, were suicides, while “only” (yes, put that in scare quotes) 513 of them were thanks to mass shootings, defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot, even if no one is killed.

Handguns, not long guns, were involved in 59% of the 13,620 deaths classified as murders that year as well, while assault rifles were involved only 3% of the time. So banning those military-grade weapons, manufactured to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible, while distinctly a sane idea amid this mounting firearms insanity of ours, would probably have little real effect on our proliferating gun culture. Given the politics right now, it’s hard to imagine any administration attempting to begin the disarming of America.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to imagine a future government eager to build that arsenal to ever more destructive extremes, both at home among individuals and throughout the world as arms merchants, the ultimate in gun culture.

It’s not hard to imagine this country strutting all too manfully toward the apocalypse with more than a Beretta in its pocket.

Copyright 2022 Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

16 comments

  1. In a world where people do not feel threatened by other people, or their governments or police, etc., we can live quite peacefully with the assurance that no person shall be subject to being shot. But the reality in the US today is that the people cannot even trust their government as it does not act, and has never acted in the best interest of the people. Rather it has supported completely the Fascist Corporate Agenda that seeks to control the world at the expense of the People. With the Patriot Act any President can declare a State of Emergency, label the people as Terrorists and order the military to kill them without a trial. The President thus is the Judge Jury and Executioner. Completely contrary to basic human and Constitutional Rights. Under this potential can you blame any American for being insecure such that they need automatic weapons???? We still have a President that sells or gives automatic weapons to countries we favor to kill people in so-called enemy countries. We have to stop with the “Enemy” B.S. and learn that all of Humanity is ONE and there are no enemies. If we cannot do this, the Earth will die from pollution, and a broken food chain, irradiation, and toxins and we will die with it as we should if we cannot learn to live together in Peace.

  2. More drivel. This is it for these older men?

    In 2019, there were 37,200 reported deaths by firearm in the Land of the Free™. Is that 37,200 too many? Of course, it is. Is it comparable to, say, Guatemala, Venezuela, or El Salvador? I suppose that depends on your definition of “comparable,” but the rate per 100,000 in El Salvador is 36.78.

    Meanwhile, more than 38,000 people die every single year in crashes on U.S. roadways. An additional 4.5 million (on average) are injured seriously enough to require medical attention. Road crashes are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people 54 and under — an average of 102 per day. (Context: About 500 Americans are killed per year by rifles.)

    A small number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. can be chalked up to accidents, law enforcement incidents, and other undetermined circumstances. Roughly four in ten gun-related deaths are murders. Wait… what? Yep, when we get the numbers recited to us in the name of headlines and fear-mongering, a pretty important detail is always left out: 60 percent of annual gun-related deaths in God’s Country™ are suicides. About 24,000 per year — out of about 45,000 overall per year. Let that sink in.

    Thanks, Mickey Z!

  3. Please take the guns in the Pentagon. Refurbish the Pentagon into a homeless shelter for veterans and refugees from frivolous wars.
    Foreign policy featuring war can have a way of trickling down to young people on the home front. Not even the Department of Homeland Security can keep us safe when the Department of Defense sets an example in shooting up the world.

    1. Yes indeed. And the next time the Congress and the President want to give the military more money, they can hold a bake sale or better yet, make them go out into the streets and into grocery store vestibules and sell candy bars to raise money for their sick weaponry. All the cash they usually get can go into new schools and all those things schools should be doing.

  4. Your story is the story of millions. I’ve known many men who hunt with unloaded rifles after killing their first deer. I know mountain folks ready to defend their homes when the black and brown hoards from the city come over the pass even though there is nothing there. I too have shot the guns. It’s fun. I saw an armored vehicle with a policeman in cammo holding a machine gun at a gay pride parade. Back in the ’70s, we used to drink and drive, then mad mothers put a stop to the carnage. I had friends die behind the wheel. We need average, clear headed people to put a stop to gun madness.

  5. Long ago I cursed the Chinese for inventing gunpowder. But they didn’t use it for weapons, and probably couldn’t have imagined that other people would be so evil as to do so.

  6. I would like to read a comment by someone who got ANYTHING from this essay beyond, “Look at me! I’m smart enough to know that my owning a gun endangers me and the people around me! If only other were so smart!”

  7. I’m very glad to have read this article. I believe Lipsyte gives us a pretty realistic glimpse into the mindset of the right-wing gun nut, but there are also one or two things that, as one born and raised in the American south, he gets wrong. Nevertheless, here goes a TLDR…

    “…shooting as unlimited orgasms…

    “…the inevitable need to actually kill something became uncontainable.”

    “…I projected a dangerous aura that would intimidate anyone with bad intentions toward me.”

    “I felt feverish with the desire for (and terror of) engagement.”

    These quotes should be incredibly telling to readers. What people need to realize is that the gun isn’t what boils the minds of these shitheads, as Lipsyte illustrates. Their true dark obsession isn’t centered on guns; they simply want to go out and kill people. There I said it. And it needs to be said, because it’s damn true. While there are some who, as Lipsyte writes of his own experiences in Manhattan, live in genuine fear due to where they live and need a way to protect themselves, these people are far and few between, at least in the white community. I specify whites because blacks who live in the inner cities where drugs and other crimes are all too common operate on a different paradigm altogether.

    These people are more than messed up in the head. You’ve likely heard by now many of these Nazis saying they’re arming themselves for the coming civil war, or, as was their excuse after the Robb Elementary massacre, “just because some nut kills a bunch of people doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to defend my family.” It’s always their family with them, they’re always in peril. All excuses. No, they’re actually wanting a civil war to break out. They’re clamoring for it; that way they have a canned, MRE of an excuse to go out and kill people they and only they deem as threats to the so-called American way of life.

    Kyle Rittenhouse went out and killed 2 men and wounded another in what was a clear and obvious case of “premeditated self defense”. He went out with a powerful AR-15 style rifle (a weapon designed for offense, not defense, and designed for the battlefield, not general society), freely chose to join in the fray, deliberately provoked people and got his wet dream wish: killing people. The excuses that he was there to protect businesses or to provide assistance to those who got hurt are just that. They’re lies and he and everyone with a functioning brain know it. And to this day, he has zero regret for what he did. Two people are dead because of him, and they may very well have been alive today had Rittenhouse, who had no vested interest in going to Kenosha to begin with, not pulled his planned stunt. And it was just that, planned. Well in advance.

    I’ve seen these people up close and personal way too many times. I’ve dealt with them more than any civilized person should. They talk about how to commit murder and get away with it. To say they’re criminally sociopathic doesn’t quite capture the rats in their head. Those like Rittenhouse, Dylann Roof, Steven Ray Baca, KKK leader Richard W. Preston, et all, aren’t alone, not by a long shot. Americans, especially those who identify as conservatives, need to realize there are more people like them than they think.

    One thing I have to disagree with Lipsyte on is that these gun nuts are somehow victims, and that their feelings are “complex”. No they’re not. The motives of these ham-and-eggers are breathtakingly simple. Unfortunately Lipsyte isn’t alone, as he quotes Hochschild who in turn depicts these people as poor, downtrodden, struggling, etc. That’s crap. Over half of these people aren’t poor whites; they’re of the middle- and upper-classes. In the American south, a wildly fat percentage of them are moreover part of the southern PMC. Those white guys in white shirts carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville? Almost all were either middle- or upper-class.

    Besides, exactly how many working class whites can afford to take off work to go to one of these wannabe necktie parties without getting into trouble with their employer? How many poor whites can afford to buy guns to begin with? Unless everyone’s forgotten, guns might be easily obtainable but they’re not cheap.

    I also disagree with “many of them believe they will need those guns for defense against the rampaging gangs (calling themselves militias?)”. Wrong. These people are or will be the rampaging gangs. When America collapses, you’ll begin seeing news depicting these “patriots” barreling through your suburbs in a pickup truck, everyone clad in kevlar, black riot gear and masks, with their idiotic yellow flag waving in the back, with a machine gun mounted on the truck’s roof and a dipshit manning it. Just riding through “to ensure safety”. Right, you’re not out to intimidate everyone. Nope. You’re the heroes we all need to save us from Loki and Karl Marx.

    For generations, these same right-wingers have long pointed their finger in the face of liberals over the issues of abortion or accidental pregnancy, drugs, joblessness, etc. “Take responsibility for your actions” and such. But when it comes to gun massacres and other mass acts of violence (like car attacks), they never look at themselves as a large part of the culture of violence in America. Nope, that’s the liberals’ fault too. They never take the responsibility that they demand others take. They’re hypocrites, always were and always will be. Stop martyring these fucks.

  8. Probably, the gun fetish of overwhelming numbers of people, mostly men but certainly at this time in the USA a lot of women, reflects inversely their experience of their sense of personal agency – the experience of effecting change in one’s life orbit – and of meaningful daily connection with others particularly via the arts. The corporate domination of everything American produces a mindset of being a spectator, dilutes if not erases the arts as an ongoing free community-forging cultural life inspiring individual and collective agency trustworthy experience, nullifies political engagement via its ownership, direction and control of government processes to serve its money gluttony, and its commodification of human beings, water, air, environment. American culture has become in the wake of the Reagan and gang de-volution, largely souless in day to day living. Owning a gun perhaps fills that vacuum.

  9. Great article! I had a similar experience when my brother and I shot some birds with a .22 rifle given to us by my father. We put it in a closet and never got it out again.

  10. Police has guns.
    Military has guns.
    Criminals have guns.

    Until those 3 groups turn in their guns, citizens should have guns.

  11. I believe the American society is on the very edge of a explosion of armed chaos that is achingly and desperately and secretly wanted by many Americans, despite them openly denying that they want, have prepared for, or are still in the midst of preparing for such an event. It is a tinderbox waiting and waiting for the right spark. If we analyse the collective actions of so many, this is the inevitable conclusion.

    And yes, the author of the article is right in that these people will themselves to be one of the very horde of marauders they claim to be watching out for. On that day, it will literally be “We have found the enemy, it is us.”

  12. Gullibles Travails.
    Citing a paragraph from Professor of political science, Michael Parenti’s Dirty Truths, pg. 85:
    [We were never “given” what freedoms we do have, certainly not by the framers of the Constitution. Recall that the Bill of Rights was not part of the original Constitution. It was added after ratification, as ten amendments. When Colonel Mason of Virginia proposed a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, it was voted down unanimously (Massachusetts abstained).
    Popular protests, land seizures by the poor, food riots and other disturbances, made the men of property who gathered in Philadelphia uncomfortably aware of the need for an effective central authority that could be sufficiently protective of the propertied classes. But such popular ferment also set a limit on what the framers dared to do. Belatedly and reluctantly, they agreed during the ratification struggle to include a Bill of Rights, a concession made under threat of democratic agitation and in the hope that the amendments would ensure ratification of the new Constitution.]
    At that time, recall, the “framers” (pun intended) did not have overwhelming monopoly control of military force, whereas today they most definitely do.
    Any ‘armed to the teeth’ citizenry would be utterly ineffective were powers’ forces to be unleashed and turned on its own citizenry.
    The Second Amendment:
    “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
    The word ‘militia’ is key: “a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency”, which is always under the authority and command of the government, whether, originally, the populace at large directly voted for it, or not.
    This is what was termed ‘democracy’ back then, and what still is practiced today.
    Do any more than a handful of the gun owners of the more than 500 million personal weapons in the U.S. today even have an inkling of what was really meant, and the intention behind it of the opening phrase of the 2nd Amendment; a well-regulated Militia?
    It certainly does NOT mean, whimsical, arbitrary, or random gun usage; certainly not for sport, and especially not for the attainment of diplomatic foreign policy pursuits!
    The framers’ original intents were, most assuredly, not that private citizens would run around at random forming militias, such as ‘special interest’ identity groups. Their intentions were much more forward thinking, darker, and clandestine than that.
    The second amendment was written by them, rather, to protect their own elite, aristocratic authority and interests; against the citizenry, as well as any, and all other challengers to their wielding of monopoly governmental power.
    They have succeeded, even beyond their own wildest imaginings in the application, interpretations, and pursuance of ‘their’ Constitutions aims of that time; for more than 235 years, now, since the country was founded as one consolidated entity.
    As a united whole today, the country is divided, and in a chaotic shambles, on its knees, facing rack and ruin.
    In the year 2022 the massive citizen Arsenal is a laughable concept. It would be utterly useless, were powers’ forces to be unleashed and turned around on its own citizenry.
    In this context, the individual “right to bear arms” is simply the ‘magical thinking’ of individuals, against a tyrannical government.
    It is simply a ploy used by the ‘Gun Lobby’ as a marketing tool to promote the sales of weapons for the Department of War, and its manufacturers.

  13. A well regulated militia? Ask the ghosts of the Cherokees that were butchered by the Tennessee militia or the Lakota that were killed by governors Mellette’s militia in the late 1800’s what militias were really for. The second amendment was put in place to make sure “manifest destiny” succeeded.

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