By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
As far as we know, the panhandlers downtown are, in fact, not armed with Mac-10s.
We'll give that up now. Last week, though, anyone who called New Times to ask if our April 1 cover story was a hoax received this standard, if indirect, response: "Real homeless people, real guns."
Which is true. The article "Give Piece a Chance," though, was a hoax. A spoof. A prank. There is no group calling itself Arm the Homeless distributing handguns, shotguns and assault weapons to vagrants in downtown Phoenix.
The response to our elaborate April Fool's joke mirrors those generated by other such New Times gags over the years (the gold in the Scottsdale Galleria; the Beatles reunion concert -- featuring John Lennon; the nonaddictive, new psychedelic drug that coated a page of the paper, which some people promptly ingested).
Judging from the hundreds of calls, letters and e-mails received at New Times and our bogus Arm the Homeless hotline, about 15 percent of the people who read the article--or heard about it--took the bait. The fact that we staged a gun giveaway with actors dressed in Arm the Homeless tee shirts, printed the hotline number (602-440-1136) and set up a Web site contributed to believability.
KFYI radio called the hotline, also seeking an interview with Whippit. Always poised to jump on a hot story, the Phoenix bureau of the Associated Press called, seeking an interview with Whippit--on Monday.
A homeless man walked into the New Times building on Friday and asked for a gun.
The Phoenix Police Department's community relations department called New Times, saying they were getting lots of calls from concerned citizens. Was it really true?
During lunch hour on April 1, the calls to the Arm the Homeless number--roughly three a minute--were so heavy they nearly crashed New Times' voice mail system.
C'mon, people. There was ample evidence of the story's fallaciousness: Whippit's Marine Recon duty in the "Mongol-Sumerian conflict of '89"; his mercenary fighting with the "Mau-Mau Liberation Front"; the reference to the "Valley National Bank building"; the Sheriff's Homeless Posse; a bullet fired by "Habbie 'Abe' Rafuls" kicking up "a spoof of dust."
About half the hotline callers pegged it as a hoax, including the first caller, who left this message 30 minutes after the papers hit the streets:
This is a pretty good April Fool's Day joke, folks, I gotta tell ya. It'll be amazing to you, I'm sure, to find out how many people think this is for real.
The second call came two minutes later.
I don't know how much experience you have with homeless people, but the fact is they are generally mentally ill, and that is why they are homeless. What they need are homes, not guns, and what you're doing is irresponsible. A lot of people are going to end up getting killed because of your foolishness.
You're a bunch of fucking idiots, you know? You're a bunch of G.I. Joe Rambos. You need to grow up and give your testicles to science. I don't fear my government, I fear paranoid idiots like you.
And one minute later.
I just read this article in New Times, and I'm amazed. I'm a gun owner, and I've hunted for several years . . . and personally, to give people that can't even hold a job, who are alcoholics or drug users, to give them a weapon is just unbelievable.
The first time a citizen gets shot by one of your homeless people that you give a sidearm or a shotgun or a Mac-10? That just blows me away. And Pete Whippit? You're a moron! If I see you--well, you're probably armed--but if I see you and you're not armed, I'm gonna pummel you!
Some callers were more concise:
Yeah, your organization's sick and you're a bunch of fuckin' scumbags.
Hi. I've got one thing to ask you: Are you fuckin' nuts!? Jesus Christ, people, get real!
And one more:
I think you're all full of shit! That's a dangerous thing you're doing! And I'm a gun owner, and I'm also a veteran. I hope the fuckin' police shut your asses down. So fuck you!
Most callers wanted to know if Arm the Homeless members were "idiots," "stupid," "morons," "retarded" or "crazy." Many of them used the "f-word" a lot--one guy uttered it 13 times in one minute:
Yeah, I'm thinkin' maybe homeless people should be given food, or maybe a job, but not a fuckin' gun! What, are you guys fuckin' retarded, dude? Are you fuckin' crazy? Huh? Some fuckin' homeless dude's gonna go rob a liquor store to get some money, or some fuckin' beer. Or he's gonna fuckin' go, you know, rob a bank or some shit, 'cause he's got no fuckin' money. Or he'll just fuckin' shoot someone, just to take their shit. I mean, what the fuck are you guys thinking? Are you fuckin' stupid? What kind of drugs are you guys on? You need to get your shit together. I can't believe this. Maybe he'll just freak out and fuckin' shoot you for being a dumb fuck and givin' him a gun. You guys are fuckin' dumb.
Then there was the aspiring entrepreneur:
Fuck you. You guys are fuckin' stupid. I'm gonna go down there and buy them guns from those bums for about five bucks each, you fuckin' idiots.
The idea of people without heat packin' heat scared the bejesus out of many. One "seriously concerned citizen" feared the homeless would "use the guns they've been donated to take homes away from people who pay the mortgages."
And we almost felt sorry for this call-girl caller:
Yeah, I just read the article in the New Times, and I think it's absolutely ludicrous. First of all, I'm an escort. I work in a dark building and I'm alone late at night, and when I leave the building there are homeless people around. I think it's just totally unfair what you've done. If you're going to do something like that, you should at least talk to the citizens about it. It's fucking dangerous! I'm scared to death now, because there are homeless people walking around that want to break into my car, that want to harass me, and now you've armed them. You're fuckin' stupid! Maybe you're armed, but I'm not.
What scared us were the some three dozen people who called in support of Arm the Homeless. The first actually choked and said, "God bless you!" Most of them wanted to volunteer and donate guns and ammo. One wanted to trade 1,000 .22 rounds for an Arm the Homeless tee shirt (tee-shirt requests were common). Another offered to help write grant proposals. A woman who said she wanted to "leave a message before every crazy in town called you" suggested that if Arm the Homeless was short on cash, the group could "distribute some high-grade combat blade weapons" instead of guns.
It gets weirder. Several correspondents confessed that they weren't homeless, but couldn't afford a gun and could they please, please have one.
Another faction believed New Times had been duped by liberal operatives, plotting to stain the pro-gun movement:
You guys have gotta be workin' undercover for anti-gun ownership. I just find it hard to believe that what you guys are doing will help me keep my gun. Thank you. Bye.
One more from the black ops file:
It's easy to tell you're a bunch of liberals trying to discredit the real Second Amendment right advocates. Get a life!
Pete Whippit got plenty of e-mail through the Arm the Homeless Web site:
Hi, Pete, I was delighted to read about Arm the Homeless in the Phoenix New Times. I hope that your organization is genuine, and not merely an elaborate April Fool's prank. I will be relocating to the Phoenix metro area this July, and I am very interested in helping out in any way I can. I realize that your recent press coverage will no doubt result in a deluge of e-mail and phone calls, but I really would appreciate a brief reply indicating whether or not I have been had.
Okay. You've been had.
Ditto to this alarmed e-mailer:
Has it occurred to you fucking brainless morons that there has been a rash of killings in Phoenix that started about the same time you idiots handed out these guns to the homeless? SHITHEADS! INNOCENT PEOPLE ARE DYING BECAUSE OF YOU!
That claim is a vexing contradiction to a message left by some gun-loving know-it-all (or brilliant co-conspirator) who averred to one online user group:
What the Phoenix New Times story did not say was that crime on the street regarding the homeless dropped like a rock over night.
Some readers responded with calls (roughly 200) and letters (30 or so) not to Arm the Homeless but to New Times:
This article is insane! I am one who truly believes that it is our constitutional right to bare [sic] arms. I also believe that you should earn the right to bare those arms by hard work and diligent patriotism to the mother land, not by sucking of the nipple of America and panhandling your way through life. Life is precious and those of us who WORK hard and pay our TAXES are the Americans that have earned the right to bare arms.
Please, Nathan Hale, do roll up your sleeves.
More dripping vitriol:
Hopefully these homeless scumbags turn and kill Whippit, then turn the guns on themselves. That would be the best thing to happen with this. Get more of the lower class people off of my planet.
In addition to the hundreds of callers who simply chortled and hung up, or took the time to say, "Nice one," we also got e-mail props from one who got the joke:
You have just cemented yourselves as the most brilliant counter-culture paper in the entire Western United States. Our undying devotion goes out to whichever staffer diligently researched and wrote the article about the homeless and their desperate search for peace through firepower. We have always respected your paper, but now we admire your paper. Keep up the good work. Our sincere gratitude for making our day."
What most made our day was the message from 60 Minutes II producer Janet Klein, requesting an interview with "Mr. Whippit."
Mr. Whippit (played by New Times writer David Holthouse) called back. The rest is history:
Klein [answering]: CBS News.
Whippit: Janet Klein?
Whippit: Pete Whippit with Arm the Homeless in Phoenix.
K: Oh. Hi. Yeah, I was looking through some newspapers here, and I saw the New Times story. Um . . . you're just an Arizona organization?
W: That's correct. As you may have seen on our tee shirts, it said "Phoenix Chapter." We are trying to get--we have some like-minded individuals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and possibly in Portland, where we've sent them some materials on how we organized our first giveaway, and, uh, some of the representatives from the future Los Angeles chapter of Arm the Homeless will be attending our action today outside the America West Arena. But to answer your question, yes, the only active chapter right now is in Phoenix.
K: Now, did you start this?
W: I'm the founder of Arm the Homeless, yes.
K: And what exactly inspired you to do this?
W: Well, I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and I wanted to make a, uh, statement to really let people know that the Second Amendment is not just for rich people in this country. You know? Also, the homeless people, they live in the most dangerous areas of America, and they need sidearms and shotguns the most. They have to be able to protect themselves, and they have no means to do it. I'm sure you've read the news accounts of skinheads and street punks setting these people on fire, and it's a travesty, and we wanted to right it, and at the same time make a strong statement in support of the U.S. Constitution.
K: How do you decide who gets them, who you give them to?
W: Well, this was not in the New Times article, and it should have been. We do not simply give guns to every homeless person who shows up. There's a screening process. I mean, none of us are psychiatrists, but if you talk to homeless people on the street, which I have, you can see which ones are more or less sane and which ones are completely off their rocker. It's not that hard. And we did not give guns to people who were apparently crazy. Does that answer your question?
K: Uhhh. Well, yeah. But, so, just by talking to them you would decide --
W: We would just talk to them and, you know, we would explain to them once how to load the gun, and if they were not able to do it the first time, we gave them one more chance, and if they failed to properly load their weapon three times, then we refused them and told them to come back at the next giveaway.
K: Uh-huh. And, do you have any requirements like age, or anything like that?
W: Well, we certainly didn't give any guns to children. But we did give preference to mothers with children.
K: Did you teach them how to use it?
W: The children?
K: No, the mothers.
W: Yeah, absolutely. We taught every gun recipient how to load, clean, dismantle, reassemble, and fire their weapon of choice.
K: And how long do you take teaching them?
W: Uh, it depends on the weapon. I mean, a weapon like the Mac-10 or the Tec-9, that's at least an hour's worth of instruction. Whereas a gun like the .22 Derringer, obviously that only takes a few minutes . . .
K: How many did you give away?
W: How many guns?
W: Almost 80.
K: To 80 people?
W: Correct. Only one gun per recipient.
K: Okay. And so you're giving some away tonight before a game?
W: Yeah, right before the Suns versus Lakers basketball game, outside the America West Arena.
K: How many guns will you take there to give away?
W: It's not going to be as extensive tonight, simply because it's, uh, a more public space. This is more of a demonstration, more of a, uh, symbolic action. We're only going to give away about 25 firearms tonight.
K: When will the next giveaway be?
W: There's a gun show here this weekend called Crossroads of the West, and it's the largest gun show in America, and we plan to make a mass purchase there. But, we're not assured we'll be able to obtain enough quality firearms there for a full giveaway. We may have to wait for another gun show to come around . . .
K: Okay. I may be interested in--let me ask you this first: Is there a tax deduction for donating the guns?
W: We have applied for--that was erroneously reported in the article. We have not received tax-exempt status. But we hope to, although for obvious reasons the government may, uh, try to shut us down in that respect. But that will not stop us, I assure you of that!
W: So far we have not received any donated firearms except from actual members of ATH, although since the New Times article we have received quite a few calls from people offering to donate used guns.
K: Oh, really? From the Arizona area?
W: Yeah. Ma'am, people here have a lot of guns. I mean, there are a lot of guns in Arizona. . . . But the thing is, with each individual gun, we have to check it out. We have to make sure that it works, we have to test fire it, clean it, all that. It's a time-consuming process . . .
K: Okay. Um--if I would be interested in doing a story, would you be willing to work with me?
K: And only me?
K: I mean just me, right? Okay?
W: No other TV media, is what you're saying?
K: Right, uh-huh.
W: What about local stations, because I suspect some of them may show up at our action today, wanting to do interviews.
K: Well, the thing is that, uh, I mean, obviously if they show up today there's nothing you can do about that, but, uh, some of the news magazines like Dateline for instance, will use their local reporters to get a story.
W: What, what about if I don't speak to them, but what about if Honey Hawk, our minister of information, speaks to them, but you will have the only interview with Pete Whippit, founder of Arm the Homeless?
K: Okay. Well, if she speaks with them, I guess what I'm asking is to keep it minimal. No in-depth stuff.
W: Okay . . .
K: And Pete, you're 33?
W: That's correct.
K: And you're a Marine Recon combat veteran?
W: That's correct.
K: What does that mean, exactly?
W: Just what it says. . . . There's been a lot of doubts cast on whether I was actually in the military, and --
K: No, no. I just don't know what it means. I'm just trying to figure out what it means, "Marine Recon." You know. I mean, I've done stories on the Marines and so forth before, but --
W: A lot of what I did for the Marines is classified. I can't discuss it at length. But basically it involved reconnaissance in hostile territory.
K: Okay. Are you from Arizona?
W: No. I'm from Alaska originally. Um, I spent some time here in my youth, and once I came out of Africa, my girlfriend moved here, and I followed her.
K: Honey Hawk, what's his --
W: That's a she. Honey's our minister of information.
K: And what does she -- why do you call her "minister of information"?
W: Well, basically she handles our PR.
K: Uh-huh. I'm just curious why "minister of information." It sounds like a country.
W: Hmmm. Yeah, I guess you're right. Maybe we should change that.
K: No, no. I'm just curious. I'm not telling you to change it. Now, how did she get involved in this?
W: Well, I met her at a gun show. That's how I handled all my recruiting. Basically, I put up a booth with a sign that said "Don't you think homeless people need weapons too?" and people stopped to talk to me, and a substantial number agreed with my philosophy, and that's how I got Honey and most of the other founding members.
K: How many members are there?
W: Right now we have 27 active members in ATH Phoenix.
K: And what do active members do?
W: Well, they help us acquire firearms. . . . They also handle test firing of donated weapons. If someone wants to donate a weapon, they'll go to their house and . . . accept the weapon and issue a certificate of donation. . . . They were also on-site at the giveaway to conduct training courses.
K: Now, the local government hasn't given you a hard time about this?
W: No. Not so far. . . . We carefully researched it, and what we're doing is perfectly legal under Arizona gun laws. It's just one private individual giving a gun to another. So there's no problem there.
K: Is the NRA supportive of you?
W: We have not requested nor received an official statement from the NRA.
K: I'm just curious if you're affiliated with any other kinds of organizations.
W: Not directly. . . . I can say this much: We have received $10,000 in contributions from, uh, Second Amendment rights supporters; now some of them may or may not be officials in other Second Amendment groups. I really can't go into that.
K: Okay, um, all right, now . . . you probably won't hear from me again until Monday. Now, 602-440-1136, is the best way to get ahold of you?
W: Yes it is.
K: You answer that fairly frequently?
W: We monitor that line 24-7.
K: Okay, Pete, now you have my number?
W: Yes I do. Now, what exactly do you do for CBS News?
K: I'm a producer for 60 Minutes II. A segment producer. Okay?
K: Okay, Pete. Thank you very much.
W: Thank you, Janet.
As Devo once sang: Whippit good.
Not long after Klein finished that interview, she called Arm the Homeless again. "Pete, Pete, pick up," she pleaded.
Then she left a voice mail for the editor of New Times:
"This is Janet Klein from 60 Minutes II, and, ha-ha, good story. We didn't realize -- we didn't really believe it, but we called the hotline anyway and the guy was fairly convincing. Anyway, it was funny. I'm wondering why -- what you're doing? Anyway, thanks."
Her incredulity no doubt necessitated her demand for an exclusive.