How to Arm the Citizenry

by Ian Tuttle
The Armed Citizen Project aims to train and equip citizens who need the Second Amendment most.

Kyle Coplen may not be a sidesaddle gunslinger — the 29-year-old got his master’s in public administration from the University of Houston this spring — but he can handle a weapon. And he is working to make sure you can, too.

Coplen is the founder and head of the Armed Citizen Project (ACP), a Houston-based nonprofit that trains single women and residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods in firearms use — and then arms them. It’s a small-scale effort so far, but Coplen has lofty targets. ACP aims to arm citizens in 15 cities nationwide by the end of 2013, hoping to collect in the process valuable data about the effects of gun ownership on crime rates.

He was one of the many Houston locals who lent a hand when 93-year-old World War II veteran Elbert Wood returned home from a doctor’s appointment in January to find his home vandalized. “I started to think about what we as a society could do to deter home-invasion crimes,” Coplen says. He found the answer in the Second Amendment. The result will be, he hopes, a wave of “new, responsible gun owners.”

Emphasis on “responsible.” Contra those who suggest that ACP is doling out guns on the street corner, the organization has two requirements: All participants must pass any background checks required by law, and they must successfully complete ACP’s three-part training course. In the first part (“Legal”), they learn about relevant gun laws, the difference between force and deadly force, the castle doctrine, and more. In the second (“Safety”), participants are taught how to store their weapons and how to prevent accidents; they are provided with a coded lock to use if they wish. In the third part (“Tactical”), participants learn how to handle their weapons and receive one-on-one instruction at a gun range. The ACP then gives each graduate of the course a pump-action shotgun, along with a box of shells and time on the practice range.

And it’s all free. Coplen estimates that, start to finish, the whole process costs approximately $300 per person — but private donations to ACP cover it all. Donors cover the financial costs of the program and also provide firearms that can be reused or sold to raise cash. “We’re redistributing power,” says Coplen. “It’s Biden’s love of shotguns with Obama’s love of redistribution. It transcends politics.”

But Coplen realizes that his organization — 20 volunteers in Houston, 200 nationwide — is stepping into a political crossfire. Gun violence in Aurora, Newtown, and elsewhere motivated the Obama administration’s ill-fated gun-control push earlier this year, as well as several states’ more successful legislation When Coplen began the project, he assumed that ACP’s chief function would be removing the cost barrier for those who could not afford guns. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” he says now. “The biggest thing we’re actually doing is facilitating the whole process” of acquiring weapons, which some states have made very difficult indeed.

But there are “misconceptions,” says Coplen, recalling ACP trainees who asked about a “National Gun Registry” and other hoop-jumping they thought would be necessary to arm themselves. “Folks believe it’s harder than it is to exercise their Second Amendment rights.” As a testament to ACP’s success in removing the “mystique” that all too often surrounds guns, up to half of the participants, Coplen estimates, tell him at the beginning of the training that they do not plan to accept the graduation gift of a shotgun; only one person has actually turned the weapon down after finishing.

Moreover, many have finished the program and decided to expand their armory beyond the  shotgun, or apply for a concealed-handgun license. “We’re arming folks with a gateway gun,” Coplen likes to say. People prize “the feeling of empowerment that comes with being able to protect your life, liberty, and property.”

Pump-action shotguns are pretty good at providing that feeling. They’re an excellent choice for home defense, says Coplen: reliable, cost-effective, and easy to learn how to use. They also are effective for exploding one prominent pro-gun-control talking point: “Piers Morgan and people like him often say they’re only against assault weapons. But if they want to come out against ACP, they must reveal that they are really against the Second Amendment totally.”

Coplen also observes that ACP is taking up a role in the supposed “war on women.” They kicked off in March by arming ten single mothers, and although ACP is currently working to arm a particular neighborhood, single women from all over are eligible to apply to participate, and they’ll be included on a case-by-case basis. Coplen explains that arming women takes precedence over arming neighborhoods, saying, “We’re fighting the liberal war on women one free shotgun at a time.”

As for its neighborhood initiative, ACP has armed 35 residents in Houston’s Oak Forest area — where last year police instructed residents to stay indoors after dusk — and it hopes to arm between 50 and 100, a goal that Coplen says is within easy reach. The plan, then, is to put up signs throughout the neighborhood warning criminals of “increased risk of physical harm.” “We want criminals to know that, if they come into this neighborhood, they are playing Russian roulette with their lives.” He says that Houston law enforcement has been “overwhelmingly supportive,” and he hopes for more input from those on the beat: “I will listen to what any officer on the ground wants to tell me.”

The organization plans to train and arm citizens in 15 cities by the end of the year, including Chicago and New York, known for their particularly stringent gun laws. New York City requires a city-approved gun permit, and investigators can deny them on grounds ranging from an arrest record to a “lack [of] character.” Moreover, if prospective gun owners can get through the permitting process, they still face daunting expenses: New York City charges $140 for a shotgun permit plus a $91.50 fingerprinting charge.

None of this is deterring ACP. “[Chicago mayor] Rahm Emmanuel and [New York City mayor] Michael Bloomberg have overstepped their bounds,” says Coplen, citing both mayors’ vehement anti-gun positions. He thinks private donations could cover New York City’s exorbitant fees, and he is even confident that ACP could win a legal battle against either city, if it came to that.

But Coplen is not interested in simply irking gun controllers, or securing individual neighborhoods, for that matter. Behind the unyielding Second Amendment advocate lurks a social scientist, who is hoping that future data on crime rates in the coming years will show that more guns do, in fact, mean less crime.

He has even received assistance from a famous proponent of that thesis, economist John Lott, who tells National Review Online that he thinks Coplen is onto something: “It is interesting to see how [ACP’s project] contrasts with the Obama administration and the Democrats.” Liberal policy in recent years, Lott observes, has been to impose ever-increasing taxes and fees on prospective gun owners, which “means that poor people are the ones who get priced out of getting to guns for protection” — exactly the demographic most in need of protection. Coplen believes those policies are doing more harm than good, and he is confident that the project’s findings will prove the merits of the opposite policies.

In the meantime, criminals and Second Amendment foes beware. The Armed Citizen Project is on patrol.

— Ian Tuttle is an intern at National Review.

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