The text that follows deserves wide and repeated redistribution, anywhere a semi- or fully-thoughtful anti-gunner can be found and cornered long enough to read it. Chip Elliott, author of a novel entitled Tomorrow Come Sunrise, published in 1970, wrote the below letter in response to an April 1981 article in Esquire Magazine entitled "Fifty Million Handguns." It so impressed the editors that it was published in the September 1981 issue as the cover story. Mr. Elliot's comments are just as relevant to the gun issue as they were the day they were written — and his effervescent authenticity is indeed deeply appreciated. Esquire Magazine did a great service by running this letter — do your part by making sure someone else reads it.
Letter from an ANGRY Reader
A Letter to the Editor of Esquire Magazine
from Chip Elliott
from Chip Elliott
In regard to Adam Smith's April column, "Fifty Million Handguns," come off it. Smith laments the fact that large numbers of people are prepared to defend themselves with handguns. He can't really accept the fact that we are living in a world where personal self-defense is a necessity. Didn't he read the article in the February Esquire called "Shooting to Kill"—about middle class citizens who are determined to shoot to defend their lives? Did he or you think that was a joke? That it was made up?
I went from being where both of you seem to be at this point to carrying a 9mm Smith & Wesson automatic in ten weeks. My wife is a psychiatrist. Very attractive, very easy to intimidate, very abstracted, a likely target for muggers both outside, because she's lost in her thoughts, and at home, because punks think doctors keep drugs in their houses (they don't). She has a gun, too, a .38, and she knows how to use it. We are not hillbillies: we are people who went to Radcliffe and Stanford, respectively. Appalling, huh? It used to appall us too, until we were forced to realize that our lives, both as a married couple with a deep commitment and as individuals doing important and meaningful work, were worth protecting.
In the spring of 1976 we were living in the San Francisco Bay area. My wife was doing her psychiatric residency. I had just walked out on the advertising business and was working on a novel. That spring, Peter Brook directed a play called The Ik, a hair-raising piece created by the troupe of the International Center for Turnbull's anthropological study called The Mountain People. Sponsored by the French government, Brook and his gang made a six-week American tour and played Berkeley.
The play cast in theatrical bronze the lives of a tribe of hunters in Uganda who had been displaced from their centuries old hunting grounds by the creation of a national park and a game reserve. What followed was an utter disintegration of their social structure, and it turned everybody—including members of the same family—into mortal enemies seeking, each alone, food.
The play's premise is that what we call human values are actually luxuries qualities that only emerge and exist under the best and calmest of conditions. It was a spooky production and great theater, but I did not see how it could possibly relate to America in the late Seventies.
Two years later, we moved to Los Angeles. We did not move to the glamorous, movie-struck Los Angeles of The Ginger Man and the Beverly Hills Hotel—though I would be lying if I said the thought had never crossed our minds. We moved to the Los Angeles of the Nuart theater, the Fox Venice, the Jung Institute, a city with the sense of being in another country with American hamburger overtones. And, of course, the sea. Not the beach, the sea.
Our friends Boris and Ute—a Yugoslav sculptor and a German painter—had just bought a house in Venice, and we quickly rented a house nearby on Electric Avenue. Electric Avenue yet! Whooee! It was dirty pink with a gray-green roof, and its outstanding feature was an eight-by-thirty glassed-in porch. A grown man in good condition could have torn this house down with his hands, but I loved it because it swayed when you walked through it. It was like being on a weather-beaten but seaworthy closed cabin schooner.
Venice at that time seemed like Sleeping Beauty after a century of trance: musty, dusty, and long stagnant, but with the promise of awakening magic. On that porch I intended to write a new Threepenny Opera, to invent at least two or three new Sally Bowleses. I would knock the world on its ear.
More friends quickly turned up—Rene and Renata, European graphic wizards; Carolyn and Chris, a mime and an actor who wanted to get away from off-Broadway and into movies and television; a middle-aged Australian writer and adventurer and his half-Irish-half-Mexican wife with her wall-to-wall cheekbones and her head full of D. H. Lawrence and Denise Levertov...and many others.
My beloved French Lop rabbit, Nicole, had a yard to romp in. We quickly discovered a sensational wine from a local vineyard, a county fair prizewinner that sold for $3.38 a gallon at the local Safeway.
Our days quickly became ordered: group breakfasts, work all day, talk all evening, lights out by ten p.m. My wife took a job as staff psychiatrist for a county mental health clinic in downtown Los Angeles. We settled in in a hurry. There was no time to lose. We were going to recreate the world not of the Sixties but of F. Scott Fitzgerald's friends Gerald and Sara Murphy in the years 1922 and 1923. We would throw a two-year-long working party.
But it quickly became apparent that all was not as it seemed in Venice. For starters, we had moved to the intersection of turfs of two rival Mexican gangs. We got along with them. When they shot at each other—as they did less than a week after we had moved in—they shouted to us in Spanish to get out of the way. We did.
There were other clues. Walking, I would occasionally see brown spots on the sidewalk that, from my experience as a police reporter, I could recognize as bloodstains. I would notice this the way you might notice a scruff of feathers where something has gotten a small bird: a tiny memorial to violence.
One morning, as I was sitting on the wobbly glassed-in porch, I watched a gang of black teenagers pour gasoline all over a parked car and set it on fire. This was at ten o'clock in the morning. Broad daylight.
A few days later, I heard of a robbery two blocks from where we lived: A woman came to the door of a house and asked to use the telephone, said it was an emergency. When the man opened the door, her henchmen came in right behind her. The three of them stabbed the man to death and left his wife barely alive. In the next block a woman was raped twice after her nose and jaw were broken.
Just to be on the safe side, after a kitchen table powwow, we went to a gun shop on Pico Boulevard one Saturday morning and bought a 38 snub-nosed revolver. After all, this was Los Angeles, land of Joe Friday. Strange things had happened here. Sharon Tate had once had a very bad evening here. But a gun! Who had ever owned a gun? I picked the revolver up after the normal fifteen-day waiting period and wrote the guy a check from the Santa Monica Bank. It cost $160. It seemed like a lot for a silly object. I would rather have bought a painting. We put the revolver under the corner of our mattress and there it stayed. For ten days.
One night we went to the Fox Venice to see Forbidden Planet, you know, the movie about monsters from the id. When we returned, the door had been broken in. The stereo was gone, the television was gone, the paintings and cameras and typewriters were gone. The dressers had been turned over and ransacked, the bed had been torn up and the revolver taken; the birdcage had been torn off the wall and the parakeet set free for a while until the cat got it and ate it, leaving the remains on the floor where a rug had been. All the jewelry was gone, such as it was. Including my Cartier watch. I had earned that watch, you know? I had saved for it just as surely as I had saved the money for a house or a car or a couple of new suits. That ended my romance with Cartier watches. There is an enormous black market for them in Los Angeles, but I don't want one now. I wear a Thirties Gruen Curvex now, a sister to the watch Bogart wore in Casablanca. It's worth about the same as a tank watch but very few people know what it is.
Three thousand in after-tax dollars. It took the police two hours and forty-five minutes to show up.
Our revolver, which had begun as a museum piece, a curio, as far as we were concerned, had now entered the underworld. We were unprotected now, and we felt so. We reported the gun stolen, of course. Serial number and all that. Big deal. Five months later, it was used in an assault against a Los Angeles woman. I made up my mind that the way to handle a gun in a dangerous situation was to never let it out of my sight.
Our friends were robbed, burglarized. Carolyn, of her sewing machine, her typewriter, her clothes. Another couple, of all their photographic equipment, used not for a hobby but for their livelihood. Easygoing Boris bought a twelve-gauge riot gun and hid it in a trunk with his sixteen millimeter movie equipment so no one would steal it. And a huge black shepherd dog to protect the trunk. Someone broke in anyway and slit the dog's throat.
|Easygoing Boris bought a twelve-gauge riot gun and hid it in a trunk with his sixteen millimeter movie equipment so no one would steal it. And a huge black shepherd dog to protect the trunk. Someone broke in anyway and slit the dog's throat.|
It turned out that my wife's work for Los Angeles County was more like a Clint Eastwood movie than a medical practice. One of her street patients quickly fastened on her and began writing her death threats with sexual overtones. There was no place to put him away because there was no money for any serious treatment, and there were no available psychiatric beds in any of the local hospitals. She began carrying the .38 in her briefcase along with her patient case load progress notes.
We quickly developed a pattern: when she came home at night she would park her car and blow the horn; I would go outside and escort her into the house. It dawned on me for the first time that we might be killed. That it was possible we would die here.
I bought a second handgun, a 9mm automatic that would fire as fast as lightning. I phoned around, discovered where to go to practice with it. And I practiced.
A word about revolvers versus automatics: If you don't know much about all this, a revolver is better because it is a simple mechanism. You can see if there are cartridges in it.
I also went to the police and got a carry permit. A carry permit is not as difficult to obtain as a lot of people would have you believe. You have to give a good reason for wanting the permit You have to not be a felon and not have, for example, eleven hundred outstanding parking tickets. If you are a crackpot, someone will sniff it out and you will not be issued the permit.
One night I was awakened by a noise outside on the street. I got up, peeped through the dining room curtains and saw a gang of teenagers taking the fog lights off my car. I raised the curtains and knocked on the window. The sight of a thirty-three year-old naked guy is not going to frighten very many people anymore, but the sight of a thirty-three-year-old naked guy with an automatic did the trick. They fled.
Our lives settled down again. We cut a safe into the floor of our dining room and hid our remaining valuables in it. It was never discovered, even though they took the Oriental rug that covered it.
We went to a wedding in San Francisco on a Friday night. The week before, I had prepped the house as you might prepare for medieval warfare: two-by-six boards bolted into doorframes with lag bolts six inches long and a socket wrench. That sort of thing. Anything we had left that was slightly portable—my wife's doctor bag, a pair of binoculars, our passports and checkbooks—I threw into two suitcases, which I put into storage.
When we returned from the wedding there was no back door and no doorframe, only an enormous hole with smashed edges leading into a set of empty rooms. We were left with a bed, some pots and pans, and a bookcase. It was one of our more memorable Thanksgivings.
On the seventeenth of December in 1978, I saw a woman mugged for her purse—and I watched her run screaming after her assailant until she collapsed, crying in the street.
On the eighteenth or nineteenth of December, my wife was at a meeting, everybody else was busy doing something, and I walked alone to the Venice Sidewalk Cafe for some dinner. It occurred to me that it was silly to put on a shoulder holster just to go out for a beer and a sandwich, but I did it anyway, although I had never been threatened physically, ever, except in foreign countries.
Walking home about six-thirty at night, just off the corner of West Washington Boulevard and Westminster Avenue, I was confronted by five young, well-dressed uptown brothers. Black. Okay. Let's get that right out front. They could just as easily have been white. We were directly under a streetlight and less than fifty feet from an intersection thick with traffic.
I was not dressed as a high roller. I am not a high roller. I don't look like a robber baron or a rich dentist. I look like exactly what I am, a middle-aged guy who's seen a little more than he needs to see. I thought, what are these guys doing?
Their leader pulled a kitchen knife out of his two-hundred-dollar leather jacket. His mistake was that he wasn't close enough to me to use it, only to threaten me. He smiled at me and said, "Just the wallet, man. Won't be no trouble."
That was a very long moment for me. I remember it just as it happened. I remember thinking at the time that it was one of those moments that are supposed to be charged with electricity. It wasn't. It was hollow, silent, and chilly.
I looked at this guy and at his companions and at his knife, and I thought: Don't you see how you're misreading me? I am not a victim. I used to be a victim, but now I'm not. Can't you see the difference?
I pulled the automatic, leveled it at them and said very clearly, "You must be dreaming."
The guy smiled at me and said, "Sheeeit," and his buddies laughed, and he began to move toward me with the knife. I thought, this guy is willing to kill me for thirty-five dollars. I aimed the automatic at the outer edge of his left thigh and shot him.
He dropped like a high jumper hitting the bar and yelled "Goddamn!" three times, the first one from amazement, I guess, and the second two higher pitched and from pain.
He yelled at his buddies, "Ain't you gonna do nothing?" They did do nothing.
|The guy smiled at me and said, "Sheeeit," and his buddies laughed, and he began to move toward me with the knife. I thought, this guy is willing to kill me for thirty-five dollars. I aimed the automatic at the outer edge of his left thigh and shot him.|
I am not a macho guy. White water to me is club soda. I haven't been skiing in ten years. Anything I order from L.L. Bean ends up on the dining room table and then in a box in the basement. I'm never going to shoot a zebra and have it made into a rug, okay?
I was not coming on like James Bond, and I was not being territorial or aggressive. I was simply protecting my right to walk around town with a lousy thirty-five dollars in my pocket and not be afraid for my life.
I walked home. I felt terribly strange, but it was a strangeness that I could identify. I realized that what I was doing—in our current state of affairs—was a cultural procedure no different from going to the grocery or getting a haircut or buying a shirt. And that I had balked over it and felt strange because it was a new procedure, something I was doing for the first time, not unlike dealing with one of those twenty-four-hour banking devices with the code numbers and the buttons—and that if I wanted to stay alive, it was possible I would have to get used to it.
I am not proud of this. I did not swallow it easily, either. More than a year passed before I talked about it with anybody, not even my wife. But I did it. And I could do it again if I had to.
What happened to us, of course, is that we got hit in the face with time's swinging door. My world changed sometime between 1975 and 1980, and we had a couple of tough years getting from one Pullman car to another. We were lucky. We lost more than eleven thousand dollars of what we owned, but we weren't killed. We adapted. Now the guns are a normal part of our lives. We accept them, just as we accept the seven motors of suburbia. They are a necessary convenience, like the washing machine or refrigerator or one of those devices that zaps mosquitoes with electricity.
Sometimes I think, this is a stupid, abhorrent, exasperating situation. And it is. But we've adapted to other stupid, abhorrent, exasperating situations: 20 percent interest rates. Iran. And now we've adapted to this one.
Let me tell you how we've adapted. We dress low key, we don't flaunt anything, we keep loaded guns in the house, and we don't keep them stashed in some drawer where we can't find them if we need them. We keep them right out in the open, and we always know exactly where they are. The difference is in that exterior framework of protection and in our attitudes toward it: it is something that was not necessary when we were younger, and it is something which most of us, Adam Smith included, still carry on about. We don't even think it's too bad anymore; we're beyond that. We accept it as a fact of life and go right on. And it will stay a fact of life until our fellow countrymen get it out of their heads that they can do as they please, that there is no such thing as social responsibility, that they have a right not to behave. Because the way we see it, if they have the right to mug us, we have the right to shoot them.
I used to believe that these people had some justifications on their side. I used to feel that I ought to have some compassion for them, and I did. I used to believe that a job and some credit would put them on the right path. It isn't true. I also used to believe that much of the human wreckage—the millions upon millions of people with emotional damage—could be repaired. That isn't true either. They can't be, for the most part, because the effort necessary to straighten out a single one of them is enormous: four or five years perhaps of therapy, in an age when there is no time for anything but emergency medicine.
Let's face it. Some of these people are poor Some of them are driven crazy with desire for stuff they will never be able to afford. But not all of them are poor, not by a long shot. A lot of them make as much money, or a great deal more, than you or I do. They do it because it's easy. They do it because they believe no one will stop them. And they're right.
Let's talk for a moment about John Lennon. Adam Smith brought him up. I'm particularly interested in this one because John and Yoko had something very similar to what my wife and I have: two equal people who happened to be able to witness each other's life to the fullest possible extent. The grand passion. The real thing. Now it's gone.
When all is said and done, the real tragedy of John Lennon is that he dinosaured out. He ought to have known better. He stayed in the house for four or five years, and when he came out again, the world had changed. He could have had a bodyguard, for Christ's sake. He could have lived in the country. He did not have to stay in New York City and rub people's noses in it with his $150 million and his blue jeans. The clown who killed him did it for fame, not money, obviously. But if someone is willing to stick a knife in me for thirty-five dollars and not bother to find out what blood type I am, you can just imagine what they are willing to do to someone who has real money.
I think a lot about John Lennon. You know what I think? I think, Jesus Christ, if it's this bad for my wife and me now, what will it be like if either of us ever becomes well known?
More to the point, let's talk about Adam Smith's friend Michael Halberstam. I did not know Halberstam, but I liked his work. He surprised a burglar in his Washington, D.C., home and was shot.
Halberstam figured all of this out in the very last seconds of his life. He didn't like being killed. He must have thought it was pretty damned unfair. He was furious. In his last few moments, rushing adrenaline and pouring blood, he got in his car and ran down his assailant.
You know what? If he had made this discovery even slightly earlier—long enough to buy a weapon and wait for the permit to go through—he would very likely be alive right now.
Now listen to me a minute. The guns themselves don't cause all this. What causes it is that people think they can have the American dream by sticking someone up for it. They think that there ought to be a huge equal society out there. Equal shares for everybody. Forced equal shares if necessary.
|Now listen to me a minute. The guns themselves don't cause all this. What causes it is that people think they can have the American dream by sticking someone up for it. They think that there ought to be a huge equal society out there. Equal shares for everybody. Forced equal shares if necessary.|
To have any kind of culture or civilization in a world like this, it is going to be necessary to stop talking about things like prisoners' unions and start talking about the concept of crime and the definition of the word "criminal."
It would be nice also to talk about police. But if you'll read these books, you'll find very little mention of police. What you will find are numerous references to people who wore swords and pistols whenever they went anywhere.
People now fashionably put down the Seventies, but it was a time when many people reached a level of personal success and satisfaction that may not be achieved again in our lifetimes. By comparison, we are in the pit, and I don't mean the floor of the commodities exchange. In many ways the Seventies gave us a glimpse of what life may be like in 125 years.
But it's like the Dark Ages now. Each time there is a major change, it is necessary to gain a clear understanding of what the changes are, what skills still hold, which ones need to be discarded, which new ones need to be developed.
Now, about those fifty million handguns: taking them away will not automatically give us a society like England's or Holland's. We are just not like that. It would be nice if we were. That's why Americans run away to Europe. What might help is a good set of disk brakes on people's behavior here. But anything that might put such desperately needed stops on people's personal "freedoms" is perceived out there in the streets as a violation of civil liberties, of constitutional rights. That is, it is a "right" to mug, rape, burglarize, murder, and commit arson for the insurance money. So there you are: a nation of pirates.
I would like to see impossibly tight gun registration laws, but I secretly scoff. Anyone who's honest can get through any registration process we can come up with. Anyone, who's not honest won't bother. The way guns get into the criminal underworld is that they are stolen. That makes registration a useless exercise.
As for the manufacture of all those devices and all those bullets, during World War II the United States became "the great arsenal of democracy." It is a damned good thing for the English that we were, too, or they would be holding Oktoberfests right now.
Do you really think the rest of the world sees us as insane because we bear arms? Try going to one of the South American countries. Try going into a country in which only the government has weapons. Try watching armed soldiers carrying their semiautomatic carbines around the airport gates and the customs offices, while the people have none. You want the wealth redistributed? Try it under those circumstances.
Don't talk to me about the saintly Japanese either. Everyone says they have a very low crime rate. No one really knows. It could be, because they are very big on making each person responsible for himself and also to his fellow countrymen—a sort of "One for all, all for one" attitude. They are sublimated like mad and they are rich because of it. It looks good on the surface, but just below that surface is a caldron; and if you look close you can see it. They have a history of barbarism that goes back for centuries and that we could never hope to match.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the first thing I thought was, now I'll never get to go there. Try putting yourself in Afghan shoes: no matter what you think, from your current vantage point, with a cellarful of good vintage wines and a wallful of Wittgenstein, if you lived there and the Soviets came trucking in with tanks and occupational forces, I am willing to bet you would hock your house, your automobile your Baume & Mercier watch, or your ass on the street for a good gun and the bullets to put in it.
So much for international relations; on the home front, suffice it to say that as long as we live in a society in which a large constituency thinks it can do whatever it damn pleases—no sense of morality asked for or required—then those of us who have the middle-class work ethic, those of us who believe the Freudian epithets of work and love, will be seen as potential victims by the flocks of hustlers and lurkers who are out there. It is sometimes tough to get a job. It is also, right now, easier to rob people than it is to work for money. It's easier because it can be gotten away with. These people believe no one will stop them. They're right. No one will. Not the police, not the courts, not the penal system. No one but the growing number of us who have decided we will not be victimized again, ever.
We moved from Venice in 1979. Our old friends blew away to various other places. Their dreams, like ours, blew away too.
We moved to a condominium in Culver City. Very uptown. Top floor, surrounded by Russian olive trees and flaming bougainvillea. Three swimming pools, Jacuzzis at every turn, an underground parking lot, and a tennis court. We didn't have anything to put in our place, but still it was pretty.
People were robbed in the parking lot. People were mugged on the tennis court. There was a rape nearby and then another. My wife began carrying her .38 again when she walked from our place to the car. We were burglarized again. We didn't even call the police.
One night we went to West Hollywood to see the movie Watership Down. We sat through it twice and couldn't understand why neither of us could stop crying. Sometime after that, we packed up—a simple matter, believe me—and drove east. We parked my rabbit, Nicole—who had survived Venice by digging a hole and hiding in it—in a picnic basket so we could sneak her into motels.
While we were looking for a house and staying in a motel, a white teenage boy and his girlfriend knocked on the door of a nearby room and asked to use the telephone. Inside, they held the couple at gunpoint; tied them to chairs with wire rope; took their wallets, clothes, luggage, traveler's checks, and car. We slept peacefully that night. If they had come to our door, they would have been surprised.
Now we live in a big old house out in the Midwest, big enough for each of us to have a studio. Huge yard, ravine, et cetera. The neighbors are friendly. A lot more friendly than we are, because we have memories we're trying to forget. It's not completely safe here, but it is a notch or so better than other places we've lived. We keep the guns, loaded, in the house, but we don't have carry permits anymore and we don't carry them around as though it were 1880...or 1980.
I've stopped going to target ranges to practice. But I still keep my hand in, as they say. Because every time we leave this relatively sublime neighborhood and enter the world of hotels and airports, we enter into a world of imminent danger—an area where the law is no recourse. So we remember how to use the guns, and try to forget that we have had to use them or ever will again.
When President Reagan was shot, I was outside painting a trellis. Some neighborhood children told me. At first I thought they had just seen a documentary on JFK. It seemed as far away to me as the moon...or the "forbidden planet." But it isn't.
Are human values luxuries? Could be, right now. If so, I lead a pretty luxurious life. I've paid for it, though, and the price was too goddamned high, because those human values used to come free. Part of the American package. Although sometimes I wonder if something so precious could ever have been, or be, free.
So you can fuss and bitch, Adam Smith, all you like, and you can rail at the hillbillies in the NRA, but the next time someone breaks into your house or your apartment, the next time someone busts the window of your car and rips off your FM radio and your thirty-five millimeter camera, the next time some woman you know gets raped and busted up and you have to visit her in the hospital and try to cheer her up, the next time you are totally freaked out after coming up against a gang halfway between the restaurant and the car, sit yourself down and do some serious considering about who has the right to do what to whom. Often this stuff has to touch people personally before they think about self-protection, and often by then a tragedy of far more epic proportions than getting knocked off for a Sony stereo receiver has occurred. I hope that doesn't happen to you. You have a right to carry on merrily with what you're doing.
Whenever I'm perplexed, upset, need some stillness, you'll find me out in the yard somewhere, pulling thistles out of my rosebushes, digging in the dirt. That's where I am today.
Let us know, you guys, when you figure out that sociopaths may be worthy of your concern, but not your life. The rest of us would like to come out of hiding.