Riding Shotgun

Competing visions of community needs

In modern America, notions of public safety have now fully morphed from precautionary to political. That shift was certainly on display last month, when even meager gun control reform efforts crashed in the Senate, following a month of hysterical pushback by the National Rifle Association and its minions.

On the local level, meanwhile, gun zealots still preach that the only safe society is one that's armed to the teeth. So goes the logic behind a free shotgun giveaway that started last year in Houston and is now spreading to Tucson.

To its champions, passing out firearms in crime-ridden neighborhoods creates an immediate and unmistakable deterrent to criminals. To detractors, however, it only makes our city a more dangerous place.

The Tucson program is being promulgated by Shaun McClusky, a well-known right-winger and an erstwhile Tucson City Council and mayoral candidate. McClusky says the gun giveaway simply offers people the power of self-protection. At least that will be the case for about three dozen folks in three local neighborhoods slated to receive single-shot, break-action shotguns, along with some beginner's training.

But critics call his plan a reckless attention grab. "I think McClusky's stunt is nothing more than self-promotion, trying to make himself relevant in the community," says Ward 6 Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who in January organized a gun buyback in which more than 200 weapons were handed over to police.

In response to the shotgun giveaway, Kozachik and local educator Sal Baldenegro Jr. have begun a Kickstarter-type project that will distribute school supplies to the Pueblo Gardens and Midvale Park neighborhoods on Tucson's southside, and to midtown's Jefferson Park. It's not coincidental that those are the same neighborhoods slated to receive shotguns.

To Kozachik, McClusky's plan "ignores the "real needs in the neighborhoods that he has targeted in what I would characterize as a stereotyping, offensive manner. He's assuming that because people in those neighborhoods are low to moderate income, and generally Latino, that they have a crime problem.

"In fact these neighborhoods have very effective neighborhood watch programs and good relationships with law enforcement generally. Sal, on the other hand, has really hit the sweet spot of what they're after, and that is educational supplies."

During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, society was "debating guns versus butter," Kozachik says. "Shaun McClusky has taken us back to that, but now it's guns versus education supplies."

McClusky's idea is imported from Houston, where earlier this year a graduate student named Kyle Coplen started what he calls the Armed Citizens Project. Like McClusky, Coplen plans on providing free shotguns to a small group of residents, with the goal of creating mass deterrence. Coplen says this interest grew out of his studies as a master's student in public administration, when he wrote a policy paper on gun control.

He says that each of the 200 shotguns he hopes to distribute will be fitted with a coded trigger lock, and recipients will have undergone training and background checks.

Coplen says he got his idea after visiting a World War II vet whose home had been ravaged by thieves while the man was at a doctor's appointment. "That really lit a fire in me, and I started thinking about what society could do to deter home invasion-type crimes. What we're doing is creating a deterrent. In arming specific neighborhoods, we're increasing the likelihood that a criminal will be shot, and that acts as a deterrent."

The concept made its way to Tucson after McClusky watched recessionary budgets eat away at the Tucson Police Department, which has lost more than 100 officers over the last few years.

Soon, McClusky was on the horn to Coplen. "I told him that we had a very similar issue with the city councils failing to fund public safety in our two cities," McClusky says. "I told him I liked what he was doing in Houston, and asked what he thought about expanding it to Tucson."

By March, McClusky had announced his own program, with a goal of raising $12,000 (which he says has now been surpassed) toward distributing roughly three dozen shotguns and the training to use them.

He says the three neighborhoods were chosen based on "need, want and desire," along with dismal crime statistics. Since announcing the program, he claims to have received overwhelming support from residents.

But his fans admittedly do not include neighborhood association presidents who, according to McClusky, felt the program was stigmatizing their neighborhoods. "That is not true," he says. "What we have said is that they've done a great job in cleaning up their neighborhoods and making them great places to live. We just want to maintain that, by providing public safety through the personal use of the shotgun."

One neighborhood association president contacted by the Tucson Weekly declined to speak on the record about McClusky's program. However, the president did say that most residents were in fact greatly concerned about the gun giveaway, and disturbed by descriptions of their neighborhood as crime-ridden.

Still lingering, of course, is the fundamental question of whether arming citizens in fact makes them safer. Both Coplen and McClusky cite studies showing that it does. But other studies come to far different conclusions.

According to research by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, for instance, firearms in the home are far more often used to frighten and intimidate family members than for self-defense. The center also found that few criminals are actually shot by law-abiding citizens.

On the other hand, there seems to be little controversy about the benefits of helping struggling schools maintain adequate supplies. To Kozachik and Baldenegro, this seems the perfect counterpoint to simply putting more guns out in the community, and that contrast is the driving force behind their School Supply Giveaway at www.wepay.com/donations/school-supply-giveaway. The fund drive allows donors to help pay for school supplies, sports equipment and clothes for needy kids.

"We're just getting it off the ground, and we're still raising money," Baldenegro says. "We've reached out to the three neighborhood associations and they're onboard. We've already given away athletic equipment—some soccer balls—in Midvale Park.

Baldenegro readily concedes that his program is a direct response to McClusky's shotgun handout. "The residents are very concerned about giving away guns in their neighborhoods," Baldenegro says. "What we're doing is giving those neighborhoods what they really need, which is school supplies and books. We're investing in our children and their education, as opposed to making our neighborhoods unsafe."

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