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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Take My Gun, Please

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The introduction you're reading right now is already out of date or we wouldn't be in the United States of 2022. I mean, we live in a country where, for years now, there have been more guns than people. According to the latest figures (for 2018!), almost 400 million of them and only 330 million or so of us. Oh, and by the way, of those nearly 400 million, an estimated nearly 20 million (and rising) are AR-15 military-style assault rifles. And we're also in a country where mass shootings (those in which at least four people are struck by bullets, whether or not they die) have all too literally become everyday matters. As I was starting this introduction, there were already 243 of them this year; in other words, more than one a day so far and, sadly, the year is young. Just a day or so later, three more had been added, including a bloody shootout in the streets of Philadelphia where three people died and 12 were wounded. The bloodiest of them " as recently in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas " are truly grim but increasingly normal events.

And the shooters only seem to be getting younger in a country where, in 44 states anyone 18 or older can buy more or less anything that kills, especially those highly militarized rifles the two 18 year olds in Buffalo and Uvalde used to such deathly effect. And no matter who dies or how, it seems that the Republican Party will put its stamp of approval on unfettered gun ownership in a big way. Take it as a lesson of our moment that Chris Jacobs, a first-term Republican congressional representative from Buffalo, once endorsed by the National Rifle Association, recently came out in support of a federal assault-weapons ban. He then faced an instant backlash from within his party and, under intense pressure, decided not even to run for his seat again this year.

So, it's good to have the second of what promises to be an ongoing series of autobiographical pieces from TomDispatch regular (as well as former sportswriter and columnist for the New York Times) Robert Lipsyte. Think of him as offering here a little inside information from his own past on what it feels like to be a young man in this country packing a weapon, while your emotions and sense of manliness run wild. Tom

A Country Armed to the Teeth
And Strutting Toward the Apocalypse


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!

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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