A Houston nonprofit wants to test the theory that a fully armed neighborhood is a safer one.
Major U.S. cities have gone to great lengths to get guns off their streets, whether through restrictive carry laws, police tactics, lobbying efforts, or all three. At gun buybacks from Boston to the Bay, residents can trade in firearms for cash.
A new organization out of Houston aims to do the opposite: arm entire urban neighborhoods, for free.
The Armed Citizen Project is the brainchild of Kyle Coplen, a graduate student in Public Administration at the University of Houston. Coplen, 29, who will graduate on Friday, submitted a white paper for a similar program as his master's thesis. Putting it into practice has been an extracurricular activity. ("My university wants nothing to do with the implementation," he says.)
On the strength of private donations and an all-volunteer staff — the ACP has yet to receive any grants or sponsors — Coplen has so far managed to provide free shotguns to a number of single women around Oak Forest, a residential neighborhood in northwest Houston that's been plagued by a series of armed robberies in the last year. Soon, they hope to have a whole section of the neighborhood armed. "We've offered everyone in that neighborhood — 400 houses — a free pump-action shotgun for home defense," Coplen says. "We anticipate giving out between 50 and 100 guns."
Oak Forest is only a prelude to a nationwide campaign to help interested, qualified urbanites acquire firearms. In two weeks, the ACP will begin a similar project in Tucson, Arizona, and giveaways in Dallas and San Antonio will not be far behind. By the end of the year, Coplen plans to have established free armament initiatives in 15 cities, including New York and Chicago, and to have distributed 1,000 shotguns.
Behind the Armed Citizens Project lies the highly controversial theory, as absurd to some as it is obvious to others, that more guns will make neighborhoods safer.
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After last year's triumvirate of gun massacres at Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown, gun control advocates, led by President Obama, tried to pass a series of measures that sought to modestly restrict gun availability, including universal background checks to prevent sale to criminals and the mentally ill. Those proposals failed in the Senate under the prospect of filibuster by congressional Republicans.
The reaction to gun violence from the gun lobby and its supporters has been the opposite. NRA President Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every school. The town of Nelson, Georgia (pop. 1,300), passed a law last month requiring citizens to possess firearms and ammunition. (They can opt out; the measure was intended as a political statement.) Even advocates of stricter gun control have argued that the only answer to gun violence, at this point, may be higher levels of gun ownership.
Coplen believes that the Armed Citizen Project can make dangerous neighborhoods safer. "I'm a policy guy," he says, "So I'd hate to act like we've got the evidence yet; we don't." But once the data rolls in, he will draw on his academic training for a multi-year study on the effects on crime in targeted neighborhoods, where he plans to place signs to announce the high level of gun ownership, as a form of deterrence.
So far, the ACP has not faced a tremendous amount of resistance: a ribbing from the Colbert Report here, skepticism from Talking Points Memo there, but no organized political pushback. Though Coplen's mission is to promote guns as self-defense at all levels of society — he lauds the shotgun a "gateway gun," and boasts that some ACP participants have already moved on to a second firearm — the ACP promotes what most political gun control advocates would firmly call responsible gun ownership.
All applicants to the Armed Citizen Project must pass a background check, complete a course in gun safety, and fill out a Firearms Transaction Record (ATF Form 4473, the subject of militia movement conspiracy theories). "We get to know them a little bit," says Robert Bertrand, one of the ACP's volunteers. "We don't want to give weapons to people who are going to go out and be stupid with them," he says. Needless to say, gun giveaways are legal.
The real tests will begin when the program kicks off in Tucson, which was at the center of the national conversation on gun violence in 2011, after a disturbed man armed with a pistol killed six people and shot former Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head. Giffords was one of several survivors of gun violence to lobby for gun control in Washington last month, and the Tucson City Council has since voted to require background checks on gun purchases within city limits.
Five months after a city-sponsored buyback collected 212 guns in exchange for Safeway gift cards, the ACP, in collaboration with former mayoral candidate Shaun McKlusky, will begin giving away guns in three Tucson neighborhoods.
Steve Kozachik, who represents one of those areas on the City Council, does not approve. "For someone to say it makes sense to be giving away loaded shotguns in high-crime areas is absolute lunacy," Kozachik told Tucson Weekly when the plans were announced in March. "These people have lost their minds."
No doubt the ACP will face stricter opposition still in some of the other target cities they officially announced this weekend at the NRA convention in Houston. They include Baltimore and Detroit, which have two of the highest big-city homicide rates in the nation, and New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent millions advocating for stricter gun policies in New York and nationwide. Even legal loaded guns lead to accidents, opponents point out, and some counter the presence of a gun may actually encourage break-ins: it's valuable loot.
But even if mayors do choose to oppose the Armed Citizen Project, it's not yet clear what they can do about it.