A campaign promising free shotguns for people in Tucson's most troubled neighborhoods has divided some residents in a community still reeling from a shooting rampage in 2011 that killed six people, left a congresswoman and several others wounded, and made the city a symbol of gun violence in America.
The nonprofit Armed Citizen Project is part of a national campaign to give shotguns to single women and homeowners in neighborhoods with high-crime rates. The effort comes amid a national debate on gun control after mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut.
While towns in Idaho, Utah, Virginia and Pennsylvania have debated ordinances recommending gun ownership, the gun giveaway effort appears to be the first of its kind.
"If you are not willing to protect the citizens of Tucson, someone is going to do it, why not me? Why not have armed citizens protecting themselves," said Shaun McClusky, a real estate agent who plans to start handing out shotguns by May.
Arizona gun proponents have donated about $12,500 to fund the gun giveaway and McClusky, a former mayoral and city council candidate, hopes to collect enough to eventually arm entire neighborhoods.
Participants will receive training on how to properly use, handle and store their weapon, as well as trigger locks. It costs about $400 per participant for the weapon and training.
Tucson police officials declined to discuss the gun program or public safety concerns, but statistics published by the department show violent crime was at a 13-year low in 2010, with 3,332 incidents. That compares with 5,116 violent crimes — including homicides, sexual assaults, and robberies — in 1997. Tucson averages about 50 homicides a year.
"Just like any other city in Arizona and in the nation we have our issues, but it is not crime-ridden," said Vice Mayor Regina Romero. "I would never say you have to carry a gun or you have to be afraid for your life."
Research has produced inconclusive results on whether defensive gun use lowers crime. Some research suggests guns result in more suicides and accidental deaths, while other studies have shown criminals are wary of gun owners.
"People don't want to confront an armed person at home," said Garen J. Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. "But, separately, there is solid evidence that in communities with higher rates of gun ownership, burglary rates are up, not down, and that's because guns are hot loot."
Wintemute said it's likely the risk of violence in the homes participating in the gun giveaway will go up.
But those behind the program argue shotguns are affordable, easy to use and don't require precise aim when shooting, making them the perfect home protection weapon. The goal is to arm hundreds of people in Tucson, Houston, New York, Chicago, Detroit and at least 10 other cities by the end of the year.
"It is our hypothesis that criminals have no desire to die in your hallway. We want to use that fear," said Kyle Coplen, 29, the project's founder and a University of Houston graduate student.
Tucson became a symbol of American's gun violence in 2011 when a mentally ill man opened fire at a political meet-and-greet hosted by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson-area supermarket. Giffords, who is still recovering from her critical wounds, has in recent months become a champion of universal background gun checks and other gun restrictions denounced by Second Amendment proponents.
Moved by Giffords' advocacy, the Tucson City Council recently approved a measure requiring background checks at gun shows held on city property. City officials said the gun giveaway program appears to be legal, so they have no recourse to shut it down.
One of the neighborhoods targeted by the program is Pueblo Gardens, an ethnically diverse, blue-collar neighborhood in southern Tucson where residents say occasional shootings, drug busts and car thefts are not uncommon.
The no-frills landscape is dotted with pickup trucks, palm trees, window bars, cacti, chain fences and toy-littered lawns. Many residents own guns, if only because of the handful of sex offenders who call the area home. More than 90 percent of the humble, single-story homes are occupied by renters.
Pueblo Gardens could benefit from a public safety campaign, but some residents say they are appalled anyone would think the answer is more guns.
"We could take that $400 per shotgun and give it to these people so they could go buy groceries, pay rent, pay their utility bills, something useful," said neighborhood association president Cindy Ayala. "Vigilantism is not the answer."
McClusky argued that like signs posted in yards advertising alarm systems, signs that warn the homeowners have guns would get the message across, he said.
"I'd like to prevent them from becoming a victim," he said.
At least 13 single women in Houston have already benefited from the program.
Tiffany Braggs, 44, said she had never owned or fired a gun before she signed up for The Armed Citizen Project in Houston after her condominium management board warned residents of growing crime.
"I feel a little bit more secure knowing that I can defend my home and my children," said Braggs, who now plans to buy a handgun to keep in her purse.
Alan M. Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue, Wash., said he expects to see more gun giveaways as President Barack Obama and other leaders call for gun restrictions.
"All this is happening because it's a pushback," he said. "If others weren't screaming for more control you wouldn't see all the sales for guns and ammunition."
For more information about the national gun giveaway program, visit http://www.armedcitizenproject.org/
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva.