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.