Free guns for ‘vulnerable’ women in Houston

Participants of Armed Citizen Project making use of a paper target at a shooting range in Houston, Texas on May 19, 2013.
Participants of Armed Citizen Project making use of a paper target at a shooting range in Houston, Texas on May 19, 2013.
Pat Sullivan/AP

One Texas group wants to stop violence against women–by giving away free guns.

While the national debate over gun control rages on, the nonprofit Armed Citizen Project has begun training and arming single women and single moms with pump action shotguns. On its website, the group describes itself as “dedicated to training and arming vulnerable women” and “fighting the war on women, one free shotgun at a time.” The group is also geared toward providing residents of high-crime neighborhoods with firearms at no cost as long as they complete a 4-to-5 hour firearms class and pass a background check.

“We’re empowering citizens and creating new and responsible gun owners,” Kyle Coplen, the group’s 29-year-old founder, told msnbc on Monday. “Criminals have no intention of dying in your hallway. We think that society should use their fear to deter crime.” An early 2013 visit to the vandalized home of a World War II vet inspired Coplen to create the project, he says.

Armed Citizen Project started equipping Houston-area women with free firearms in March, then rolled out phase two, centered around the city’s Oak Forest neighborhood, in early May. It appears to be a relatively small operation at this stage–they have given away only 35 guns to date–but it’s a message that may resonate despite studies to the contrary.

Coplen argues that guns help protect citizens from potentially dangerous home invaders–an aspect that appeals to women who tend to be physically smaller than the stereotypical burly male robber. “Generally, women who live alone have reached out to us for a reason,” he said.  “Having a firearm in the home is a forced equalizer.”

However, a recent study conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center suggested women are in fact less safe with guns in the home. It found that women living in states with more accessibility to guns are at a greater risk for violent death via “unintentional gun deaths, suicides and homicide, particularly firearm suicides and firearm homicides.”

A 2003 study from the University of Pennsylvania indicated that a woman with a gun in her home was nearly three times more likely to be murdered compared to a woman without a gun in the home.

Coplen said the reaction from the community has been “overwhelmingly positive,” especially from law enforcement officials in Texas. Not that that matters, he added: “I really have no interest from hearing elected officials on this.”

Houston City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents Oak Forest, does not see the increased distribution of guns as an effective tool to prevent gun crime. “Statistics show that guns are more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting than in a self-defense shooting,” said Cohen in an emailed statement to msnbc. “That being said, while I support the Second Amendment, I think we should focus on common-sense solutions such as universal background checks.”

Cohen said her offices received several concerned calls about the program. The group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense requested a formal meeting with her.

msnbc reached out to Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s office for a comment, but received no response.

Before launching in Houston, Coplen and his team pored over crime stats to pick a neighborhood and reached out to community members with an old-fashioned, snail mail postcard–a model they hope to replicate elsewhere.

The Armed Citizen Project has ambitious plans to expand into other cities soon: Tucson, Dallas, San Antonio, Indianapolis Detroit, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Baltimore and Atlanta.