TUCSON, Ariz. -- 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 the national debate on gun control after mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut.
Towns in Idaho, Utah, Virginia and Pennsylvania have debated ordinances recommending gun ownership, but the shotgun 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 shotgun 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 shotgun program or any 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 to 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 or not. Some research suggests guns result in more suicides and accidental deaths, while other studies have shown that 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.
Those behind the program, however, argue that 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, D-Ariz., outside a Tucson-area supermarket. Giffords, who is still recovering from her wounds, has in recent months become a champion of universal background checks and other gun restrictions denounced by Second Amendment proponents.