By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Manny Marco, unemployed vagabond, tenderly loaded the last of 30 9-millimeter bullets into the spring-action, extended clip for his new Mac-10--a semiautomatic assault weapon capable of throwing rounds as fast as Marco can blink.
"That's very good, Manny," coaxed Arm the Homeless firearms instructor Pete Whippit. "Now, insert the clip and rack that lever there." Marco did so, producing the wicked, unmistakable chik-chik of a freshly loaded weapon.
"Okay, Manny," Whippit continued, pointing to a switch. "Now, all you need to do is flick this thing here from 'Safe' to 'Fire,' and you are cocked, locked and ready to rock."
Tears of joy trickled through the caked grime on Marco's face as he threw both arms around Whippit, still holding the fully loaded machine pistol. Nearby, a cluster of vagrants sorting through a shopping cart filled with handguns and shotguns ducked and danced away from the arc of the Mac-10's barrel.
"God bless you, and God bless Arm the Homeless," Marco said. "This is the nicest thing
anyone's done for me in 10 years."
With that, Marco withdrew from the embrace and shook the Mac-10 menacingly at a reporter. "Beats the hell out of a little spare change, don't it?"
The proud new gun owner slid the Mac-10 into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack, which he latched over a soiled bed roll. He waved goodbye, then set out across the desolate, dry bed of the Salt River, his course set for the corporate towers of downtown Phoenix, two miles away. Marco said he spends most afternoons there, panhandling near the Valley National Bank building.
"That man is going to rest easier tonight because of the gift we bestowed upon him today," said Whippit, his eyes shielded behind military surplus mirror shades. "Not only did we give Manny the peace of mind that comes with carrying a weapon. We also gave him the sense of self-respect due any man who exercises his God-given, Constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
"Just because someone is homeless, doesn't mean they don't need a gun--quite the contrary," Whippit continued. "That's what Arm the Homeless is all about--making sure any American who wants a gun has one, whether they can afford it or not."
On March 25, Whippit and five other Valley gun activists calling themselves Arm the Homeless distributed free, legal firearms to 76 homeless men and women during a three-hour giveaway on the Salt River bed.
The action--technically a series of transfers between private citizens--was completely legal under Arizona's loose gun laws (Arm the Homeless required all firearm recipients to sign a form stating they are not convicted felons).
Appropriately, most of the weaponry--which included eight .357 magnum revolvers, at least five .38s, two .44s, dozens of 9mm, .45, .25 and .380 caliber semiautomatic pistols, a few Luger .22s, and high-capacity arms such as the Mac-10, seven Tec-9s, and one SKS assault rifle--was kept on-site in a shopping cart, from which the homeless literally chose their weapon.
The giveaway was staged in a secluded patch of wasteland beneath the Central Avenue Bridge. Honey Hawk, the gun group's "minister of information," said the event was promoted solely though word of mouth, on a "classified, need-to-know basis."
"Basically, we planned the operation, then established contact agents within the downtown Phoenix homeless population, through which we disseminated the time and place specifics," she said.
The giveaway was first-come, first-armed, and began at high noon. As the vagrants arrived in ragged bands, two Arm the Homeless organizers secured them into groups of five in a holding area cordoned off with rope in the shadow of one of the overpass' concrete supports. The shopping cart of guns was on the opposite side.
Whippit escorted each group in turn to the "arming zone," where they sat on the ground for a 15-minute lecture from Arm the Homeless instructors, who skimmed over the basic principles of firearm safety, then identified and explained the pros and cons of the four types of guns available--revolver, semiautomatic pistol, shotgun and assault rifle.
"Now, the SKS assault rifle is not a carry-down-the-street kind of weapon," Whippit said during one lecture. "It's a camp weapon. It's a keep-it-in-your-sleeping-bag-by-the-fire weapon. The SKS is ideal for defending an established position."
After the lecture, each group of five was instructed to make a selection from the shopping cart, with a 10-minute time limit on browsing.
Cat, 43, a member of the first group, immediately seized upon a Mossburg 500 shotgun, which came with a box of Milstor shatter disc rounds--each Milstor shell is packed with a stack of 15 dime-size metal discs, perforated in quarters to detach upon barrel exit.
"I want this one!" Cat said.
"That's a lot of gun for a little lady," one Arm the Homeless volunteer told her. "How about this, instead?"
He reached into the cart and pulled out a silver, Colt .380 that fit into his palm. "This is what we call a purse gun. It might be more your type."
"I don't have a purse!" protested Cat. "I want the scatter gun!"
"Let her have the damn shotgun," Whippit directed. "We've got people to arm."
Whippit, 33, is a Marine Recon combat veteran who says he saw action in the 1989 Mongol-Sumerian conflict. After Whippit left the Marines in 1992 (records indicate an honorable discharge), he says he fought as a paid mercenary with the Mau-Mau Liberation Front in several west African tribal wars. Whippit followed a girlfriend to the Valley about a year ago, and now lives in east Mesa, where Arm the Homeless is based.