VERY pro-gun cover story in Philadelphia Weekly
I was excited to pick up this issue today. Definitely not the usual perspective you see in this type of publication. The article features a couple well-known Glocktalkers:
Everyone knows lots of Philadelphians are armed. But not all of them are criminals.
by Steven Wells
Meet Patrick the vampire-fanged goth entrepreneur; Joshua the humanitarian war-robot designer; Bash the dreadlocked metal guitarist with the scarred-over bullet hole in his left hand; Joel the Mt. Airy surfer dude; Diego the Argentinean 3-D artist; Kenyatta the cigar aficionado; and Chris and Cecilia—ass-kicking, trash-picking, guitar-and-sewing-machine-thrashing West Philly punk rockers.
All Philadelphia gun owners. Most of them featured in the recently published book Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes by Philadelphia photographer Kyle Cassidy.
And not a single Bible-thumping, bigoted, duck-****ing white supremacist militia son of a ***** among them.
Philadelphia is loaded with guns, both legal and illegal. Yet many of us live in a gun-free Philly. It’s possible to spend your entire life here without ever seeing a gun that’s not on a cop’s hip, and never knowingly meeting a gun owner.
There’s a Philadelphia that doesn’t know guns. A Philly that thinks gun ownership is dangerous, obscene and absurd. What kind of freak chooses to own something designed to rip holes in other human beings anyway?
But there’s another Philly.
And this isn’t the Philadelphia we read about every time there’s another homicide.
This is a third Philly. One with a loaded Glock in its waistband, and a shotgun and an assault rifle in the bedroom safe.
Stepping into the lives of Philadelphia gun owners is like entering a parallel dimension. At times it’s surreal.
In balmy Clark Park, dogs frolic in the sunshine, butterflies flutter past, bees hum and the air is filled with children’s laughter.
Bash, a soft-spoken dreadlocked thirtysomething tattoo artist and rock guitarist, is sitting on a bench, running through his personal gun lore. Like the time three guys in Atlanta—one with a handgun—made a 90-degree turn toward him with murder in their eyes, and how he ran to find cover so he could draw his own weapon, and was shot in the hand.
Armed Pennsylvanians from Armed America: Not a Bible-thumping, bigoted duck-****ing white supremacist militia member among them.
“It felt like being hit with a pebble.”
He talks about his semiautomatic rifle—a fearsome-looking Bushmaster Carbon AR-15—and his Glock. With his hand in a pistol shape, he makes a point about firepower and aesthetics. About a yard away, a little girl and her mother talk about ice cream.
Sometimes it’s fun. Standing in the Gun and Archery range at Eighth and Ellsworth, pecking away at a knife-waving paper skeleton with a fully loaded AK-47 is a blast.
And just once it got creepy. At a gun show at the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory at 27th and Southampton in the Northeast, customers are politely asked to leave their cameras in their cars while owners of concealed weapons pop out magazines and take their empty weapons into the show.
Inside, men in T-shirts proudly emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag meander past stalls selling hand grenades, homophobic bumper stickers, books about cannibalism (Contingency Cannabalism: Superhardcore Survivalism’s Dirty Little Secret), gunpowder and Cold War weaponry still sticky with packing grease.
There are badges, books, armbands and beer steins covered in swastikas. A middle-aged black man asks questions about a pistol he’s thinking of buying, seemingly oblivious that the table he’s leaning over is awash in symbols of racial hatred and white supremacy.
This is how much of the rest of the world sees the U.S., how we’re portrayed in countless news specials and documentaries—as a gun-toting, military-fetishizing right-wing freak show; a modern industrialized democracy bizarrely in thrall to culturally retarded and heavily armed barbarians; a nation where schoolchildren go on shooting sprees, and inner-city kids kill other inner-city kids by the hundreds, and nothing changes because no one wants to upset a progress-blocking coalition of gun companies, craven politicians and ferociously right-wing gun nuts.
Philadelphia’s gun owners belie that stereotype.
Thirty-six-year-old Donald “Donno” Layton graces the cover of Armed America—bearded, booted and suited, and looking for all the world like an Old Testament patriarch anachronistically armed with 21st-century weaponry.
His son Uzi, wearing Superman jim-jams, stands in the foreground waving.
“I didn’t pick the name,” says Layton. “My wife Judi did after watching The Royal Tenenbaums. We looked it up, and it means ‘my strength and power.’ Then a few days after we’d decided on the name, Uzi Gal, the inventor of the Uzi submachinegun, died—right here in Philly! Crazy coincidence, eh?”
Layton’s a minister in the Worldwide Church of Christianship, a husband and father, a tattoo artist, a part-time child-minder and a tribute-band singer who always performs in a wig and a dress.
“Yeah, it confuses people,” he says. “I’m all about that.”
Layton once tattooed an oversized representation of his ***** and testicles on a female customer, who he says, “loves the cock and is not afraid to let people know.”
On the front porch of his picturesque five-story West Philly house sits a large sack of weed-killer relabeled “Viagra.”
Layton suspects it’s the work of a neighbor, but he hasn’t bothered to remove it. Inside his lovingly maintained house, an entire wall is covered in scrawled punk graffiti.
The chances of Layton ever being chosen as an official NRA spokesperson are slim.
“I like to **** with the squares,” he says.
That’s one of the reasons he chose the legendary AK-47, the punk-rockiest assault rifle ever made.
“It’s a gun people look at and recoil in horror. As a kid who grew up sporting a mohawk, running around and scaring suburban squares, I like that people see it and instantly form an opinion about me. If they don’t want to be near me, that’s great. It separates the wheat from the chaff.”
The other reason he likes the AK: It’s unjammable, idiot-proof and so popular you won’t ever run short of spares or ammo should society collapse. The same logic informed his choice of the Remington 870 shotgun: “Every police car you see has an 870 between the front and back seats.”
These, says Layton, are exactly the no-frills, no-nonsense guns you’d want if the world goes to hell and the streets fill with the deranged, the desperate and the walking dead.
“I don’t want the world to come to an end, but if there’s zombies in the street or rioters or whatever, trying to get in here, they’re going to have a hell of a time doing it.”
“I don’t really honestly expect the dead to rise,” he says. “However, in a huge state of civil unrest, there’ll be people scratching at my window, and they’re not getting in.”
Shooting the shooters: Kyle Cassidy traveled 15,000 miles to get the pictures for Armed America.
More likely, if push really came to shove, he’d be just like most gun owners in New York on 9/11 or in New Orleans during Katrina who left their guns at home and pitched in—got food and water to the injured and the elderly, and generally acted like decent human beings and good neighbors.
Because, much as he likes scaring the squares, truth is Layton’s a thoroughly nice chap.
“There are people in that book,” he says, nodding at Armed America, “I’d be scared to be in the same room with.”
There are scary people in Armed America.
Like Dan from Oregon: “The sheer joy of one-handing the Bushmaster XM18 makes you feel like Robocop when you’re shooting toilets out in the middle of nowhere.”
And baby-faced, shaven headed, and black-combat-pants-and-sleeveless-T-shirt-wearing Ochressandro from New Mexico: “I have sworn eternal enmity to the forces of socialism and control … I have read Gulag Archipelago and I will not let it happen here without a fight.”
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Some people think the cuddly punk-rocky Layton’s scary too. “A lot of people look at the photo of Layton and his wife Judi, and say, ‘Oh, what horrible people,’” says Armed America author Kyle Cassidy. “In fact, someone asked me, ‘Do you think their child is abused?’ which is kind of baffling after meeting them. I think they’re two absolutely fantastic, funny, kind, polite people who happen to have guns in their closet.”
The appeal of putting Armed America together, says Cassidy, lay in “finding 100 possibly very paranoid people, and getting them to trust me.”
For six months he had no luck. “Nobody was talking to me,” he says. “I was going to gun ranges and just sort of hanging out. I was very naive about it. I’d just hand people my card and say, ‘Hey, I’m working on a project about gun owners, and I’d love to come over to your house and photograph you with your guns.’”
Cassidy even resorted to buying a pistol himself, going to ranges and “shooting like I was practicing for the Olympic team.”
Layton was his breakthrough.
“I was at a party, and he had an NRA patch on his jacket. I said, ‘Hey, can I take a picture of you with your guns?’ The only thing he said was, ‘Can I wear my suit?’ And his wife said, ‘If you’re gonna wear your suit, I’m gonna wear my ball gown. They were just so happy and so friendly, and it was obvious that their gun ownership was no deep dark secret.”
Word spread. The dam broke. Hundreds of people in Philadelphia and across the U.S. couldn’t wait to be photographed with their guns.
Forty-year-old South Jersey native Cassidy has lived in West Philly since 1993. Before coming up with the idea for Armed America, he hadn’t touched a gun for 20 years. “My shotgun is still in my mom and dad’s attic.
“Moving to Philly gave me a whole other viewpoint about guns,” says Cassidy. “I’m coming from this rural South Jersey town to a place where 400 people were being murdered every year, most of them with guns. I’d hear gunshots at night and think, ‘What could these people possibly be doing?’ I used to hear gunshots three times a week in my neighborhood.”
Hell-bent for leather: Goth entrepreneur Patrick Rogers keeps his finger off the trigger.
Cassidy and an assistant went on a 15,000-mile trek to get pictures for the book. Several times they encountered paranoid gun nuts who took them for government spies come to take away their God-given weapons.
“The only time I actually felt unsafe around people with guns wasn’t because I thought I was going to get shot or because I thought they had bad intentions,” he says. “It was when I ran up against people who had less than safe gun habits.”
Mostly, says Cassidy, the gun owners were safety conscious, polite and courteous. Most gun owners, he says, are regular people—people with dogs and cats and cute kids.
Pets and children frolic across the pages of Armed America, defusing the impact of silver-and-black weapons lying in laps, resting against couches or sitting on coffee tables.
Nobody in Armed America scowls or fixes the camera with the dead eyes of what Layton mockingly calls “ninja-commando wannabes.” The vast majority appear relaxed. Many are smiling.
Armed America undermines the stereotype of the ’roid-raging, borderline neo-Nazi death fetishist. Instead you find a Buddhist, a left-wing Democratic blogger, a smattering of liberals, an anticolonialist, a socialist and two members of the Pink Pistols, Philadelphia’s gay gun owners’ club.
Is there anything besides guns that unites these people?
“Kilts,” says Cassidy. “There are four guys in this book wearing utili-kilts. They’ve got cargo pockets and a place to put a hammer. After the last one I was like, I’m not going to photograph another guy wearing a kilt. Show up at some guy’s house and he’s wearing a kilt, I’m gonna make him change.”
Cassidy asked only one question of his subjects: Why do you own guns? Dig a little deeper and Philly’s gun owners all have war stories.
“My first year tattooing—1998 or 1999, I guess—seven of my regular clients were shot and killed in one year here in West Philly,” Layton tells PW. “And that’s just the ones I know about. Who knows how many walk-ins got killed? My original shop on 47th and Baltimore was made up of pretty much thug-wannabe kids and cops. Those were my two main clientele, which was kinda interesting. One guy, I started a piece on him that said, ‘**** the world.’ Surprisingly enough, he ended up shot and killed.”
Layton says he’s twice shown his pistol to successfully dissuade men from attacking his wife.
Bahamas-born goth entrepreneur Patrick Rodgers doesn’t tell people his age. He lives in Fairmount and owns a music company called Dancing Ferret.
He’s tall, pale, has long black hair and savage-looking double-canine implants. When he burst in on burglars while clad in black silk pajamas and clutching a shotgun, they fled out the window. And he once used his pistol—for which he has a carry permit—to stop six men from beating a shopkeeper to death in the street.
He says he doubts he’d have succeeded with his fists, a knife or a baseball bat.
Chris Peelout and Cecilia Deville—tattooed West Philly punk rockers—own a Ravin Arms .25 pistol. “I don’t have a name for it,” says Peelout. “I don’t pet it.”
They live in an apartment decorated with punkish bric-a-brac “thrown out by stupid Ivy League *******s.” There’s a copy of Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents in the bathroom.
When they got married, says Peelout, “The justice of the peace gave us the script, and we just crossed out anything mentioning God, and wrote ‘rock ’n’ roll’ at the end.”
The couple say their pistol is for protection. Peelout tells of a neighbor who shot a guy who came crashing through his window. He says he saw the life die in the eyes of another kid shot in the street outside—“100 hundred yards from where I sleep.”
One Philly gun owner tells PW he knew exactly where to go to buy an illegal gun, and just what to say. “Hey, yo, I’m looking for a piece. Something with no bodies on it.” But he won’t name the street. “Those guys get pissy about people calling attention to them, and I do live pretty close.”
Another Philly gun owner says he’s been approached to make an illegal straw purchase. (He refused.)
Several gun owners politely refuse to tell PW whether they’ve ever drawn their weapons.
This story was initially supposed to include a diary of Philly gun crime. But after the first dozen deaths, it seemed pointless.
Tooled up or gunless, we all live in the Philadelphia where an 18-year-old motorist shot a 14-year-old cyclist; where cops fired 85 shots to put down a mentally ill man; where Philadelphians murder 400-plus other Philadelphians every year. And bereave, terrify, cripple, scar and traumatize countless others.
Talk to gun owners, and you’ll hear a hundred stories.
Twenty-five-year-old Joel Magda, a bartender from Mt. Airy, talks about that special moment when the woman you’re making out with discovers the gun in your waist holster. “That’s kinda interesting,” he says.
Magda grew up in suburban Warrington, and moved to the city five years ago.
“In my job you talk to people,” he says. “You’d be surprised who carries a gun around here. Real liberal-looking people.”
Thirty-two-year-old Kenyatta Donley, a marketing manager from Upper Darby, says he appeared in Armed America “to present a different picture of a young black man who owns guns—a homeowner with two degrees.”
An NRA member, Donley has written the organization, “asking them to reach out more to black gun owners.”
Active in city politics, Donley’s a Mercedes-driving Mason, a keen competitive shooter and a serious cigar nut. He once spent $30 on a single smoke.
“I grew up in the heart of West Philly—45th and Westminster … It’s still pretty rough around there,” he told Cassidy.
Argentinean-born 3-D graphics artist Diego Muya recently moved from South Philly to Haverford. “I’m into fast cars, loud music and loud guns,” he says. He expounds libertarianism with a convert’s zeal, explaining how private companies would do a much better job of running the parks.
Muya has his guns laid out on the table. One is a bolt-action Argentinean-made Mauser rifle from the 1890s he’s sure “has a few bodies on it.”
If anything besides gun ownership unites these Philadelphians, it’s certainly not politics.
Patrick Rodgers is a registered but not entirely convinced Libertarian. He articulates the NRA line on gun control carefully and concisely. He argues eloquently for the right to bear arms, quoting historical precedents and skillfully linking the right to bear arms to other rights closer to liberal hearts.
Donley thinks Michael Nutter’s stop-and-frisk policy will lead to racial profiling. Layton thinks Republicans aren’t real conservatives, and disagrees with the NRA on a range of issues, but thinks “they’re our 800-pound gorilla on Capitol Hill.”
Punk rocker Chris says he’s all for gun control, as long as his gun is taken last.
Bash, perhaps only half-jokingly, says Philly’s murder rate would be reduced if illegal gun owners “learned to shoot straight.”
“It drives me insane that we have this many murders,” says Layton, “particularly this many murders where criminals are using guns. It’s a real horrible thing and a horrible pain in the ass, and I hate lying in bed at night and hearing gunshots and wondering if bullets are going to come flying through my window. That sucks. But making sure my neighbor can’t buy a gun isn’t going to stop that.”
And then there’s 30-year-old Joshua Koplin, a rifle and pistol owner who’s lived most of his life in Philly, and designs humanitarian robots for the Pentagon. He’s also designed his own gun—but decided not to market it.
He wonders how the AK-47’s inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov feels about his legacy. Or Uziel “Uzi” Gal—who died of cancer in Philadelphia in 2002.
“My grandfather helped design the atom bomb,” says Koplin. “That’s enough.”
Koplin says he has “somewhat complex views” about the gun issue politically. “I own guns, and carry one sometimes, but actually believe in gun control, and am not a right-wing Republican gun nut with a generator and a cache of beef jerky, waiting for the second coming.”
The NRA, says Koplin, is using images of “jackbooted government thugs kicking down your door … to create a pseudo gun culture on the deep end of the right wing, where you have this weird, paranoid, antigovernment fortress mentality against the liberals who are gonna come and take away your guns. I think that’s dangerous.”
“You’d figure it would be the antigun people who’d be out to portray the gun owners as insane. But then you go to a gun show, and it’s all there in front of you. It’s pretty scary. The swastikas, the Nazi memorabilia, the white-separatist stuff. Some of the rhetoric is absolutely insane. And that makes gun owners look really, really bad.”
Koplin—who makes his own wine and cheese—probably isn’t a typical Philly gun owner. But which of the individuals interviewed for this article is?
The Second Amendment notwithstanding, you suspect Philly’s gun owners would make a lousy “well-regulated militia,” but a kickass party guest list.
Steven Wells (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PW’s arts and entertainment editor
I was really happy about the article. My one very small complaint is this passage:
But really, prety minor in the grand scheme of things- ESPECIALLY considering it was printed in the philly Weekly- home of gun-hating Kia Gregory (who, herself, carrys, BTW) and many others.
I took Mr. Wells shooting, too- he briefly mentions the fun of shooting a target of a skeleton weilding a knife with an AK- that was us.
Oh, wait- I did have one other complaint. He refers to "Butter"- the dude that was shot 21 times by police unleashing 85 shots- as "mentally ill".
Being high on PCP does not count as mental illness in my book. Waving a gun at cops while dusted is just straight up stupid and earns your dumb ass a shooting. Not falling after being shot by police earns you 19 more shootings. Sorry.
But all in all, a left wing Englishman writing for the Philly Weekly certainly could have done a hatchet job on us if he wanted to. I think he did a damn good job.
(And with respect to his leftist views- he said to me on the way home from the range, "as a left winger, I really f'ng hate bleeding heart liberals!")
I should also add that my secret hope is that Mayor Street will make some public comment about how horrible this article is for portraying gun owners in a positive light- hopefully specifically referencing me or something I said, so that I'll then be afforded the opportunity to debate him in a public forum.
Man, that guy is a jackass.
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