A version of this story ran in the May 2013 issue.
A graduate student at the University of Houston recently uncorked the Armed Citizen Project, which may be a first-in-the-nation program, with the goal of distributing free guns to people in Dallas, Houston, and Tucson, Arizona (where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot, 13 bystanders injured, and six killed in a 2011 assassination attempt).
The group, which is applying for nonprofit status, has already handed out at least 10 shotguns and will probably enjoy profile-building support when Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association alight in Houston for the NRA’s national convention in May.
But the gun-giving group appears to have already achieved a side goal: unquestioning media coverage of its suggestion that the giveaway is designed to allow the group to “analyze” what happens to crime rates when guns are injected into Texas communities.
From the website: “The Armed Citizen Project is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to training and arming residents in mid-high crime areas with defensive shotguns, for free! In training and arming law-abiding residents, we are saturating neighborhoods with defensive weapons and measuring the effect that a heavily armed society has on crime rates. We are an organization that is not simply content to hold the line on guns. We are also training and arming single women in high crime areas, competing against gun buybacks, calling out anti-gun politicians as being pro-crime, and fighting the anti-gun establishment in general.”
When the organization launched earlier this year, several news venues quickly ran with the story. Houston’s CBS affiliate did a generally upbeat piece anchored by the assertion that the gun giveaway is really all about sociology and criminology: “A University of Houston graduate student says he’s conducting a study to hopefully answer the question being debated across the country, ‘Do more guns reduce crime or not?’’’
Dallas’ CBS station concentrated a good portion of its feature report on an elderly black resident of South Dallas who endorsed the distribution of free guns, which are apparently paid for through donations to the group. The story went on to consider the attributes of the 20-gauge shotguns being handed out. Gun aficionados claimed that shotguns are “the most effective” weapons for home protection, no matter the shooter’s competence.
“Even if you are off, you’re still likely to have something in your target,” a Dallas gun promoter told the station. Almost as an afterthought, there was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 10-second soundbite glued to the end of the report from a resident who said she just doesn’t like guns at all.
Then, in March, the group sent out another press release: “It is with great pride that we announce our new Anti-Rape Kit Initiative, in which we will be providing shotguns, ammunition, and training to vulnerable women in high crime areas free of charge… With our Anti-Rape Kit Initiative, we will aid in the reduction of the backlog of untested rape kits, by providing clear, direct, severe, and permanent consequences for the crime of rape.”
Almost instantly, Houston radio station KTRH posted a link: “If you are interested in signing up to get a free shotgun and training or want to donate click here.”
Finally, the Dallas Observer invoked a bit of healthy skepticism when it wondered whether the organization was really more interested in “trolling liberals” than arming citizens, and suggested that the group’s website hints at the giveaway’s real aim. The Observer’s piece noted that the group’s site says, “We are pissing off all of the right (left) people,” and “having a blast doing it.”
And to date, it doesn’t appear that any news accounts in Texas have explored the online endorsements the group has received from survivalist forums, or the founder’s LinkedIn page, which indicates he’s worked with the Houston Young Republicans, Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign, and Win Florida 2012 (a group dispatched from Texas to Florida to get out the vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan).
Bottom line: Kyle Coplen, the 29-year-old student who started the whole thing, seems to be having fun messing with the Texas media. In an interview later scooped up by Stephen Colbert, Coplen told Current TV (the only news outlet that has seriously tried to grill the group) that he’s having a ball.
“It makes me feel great. I get up every morning with a pep in my step, giving out guns . . . living the dream.”