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Plan to hand out free shotguns in Tucson stirs debate

Gun Show

File: June 19, 2010: Assorted shotguns are displayed on a table at a gun and knife show in White Plains, N.Y., (AP)

A former mayoral candidate in Tucson, Ariz., is drawing heated criticism from Democrats after he launched a program this week to hand out free shotguns in high-crime neighborhoods. 

Shaun McClusky, who kicked off the program Monday, financed it with initial donor commitments of $12,000. He told FoxNews.com that with those private donations alone, he can arm and train 36 people -- and hopes to begin that process in 60 days. 

McClusky said he's already received more than a dozen responses from residents, "none of them negative, all of them positive." 

But with McClusky launching the gun handout program in the same area where former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, he's running into stiff resistance from Arizona officials. 

State Rep. Victoria Steele, who represents Tucson, called the program "plain lunacy."  

"Arizonans in Tucson and across the state are demanding that we reduce gun violence and create safer communities. Handing out shotguns is not a solution," she said in a written statement. 

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell called it "ideological extremism at its worst" and "a political gimmick that could have dangerous consequences." 

The program, though, is actually the brainchild of a master's student at the University of Houston. The student, Kyle Coplen, launched what he calls the Armed Citizen Project, a nonprofit that is handing out "defensive shotguns" for free in certain neighborhoods of Houston and studying the effect on crime rates. 

Reached Thursday, Coplen said it's too early to tell whether there is an effect -- but he said he intends to expand the program to 15 cities by the end of the year. Right now, the program is only in Houston and Tucson, with McClusky's help. 

"His idea's great," McClusky said Thursday. "So I took his idea and I ran with it here in Tucson." 

McClusky said he's working with a gun shop that will help procure the shotguns and run the background checks and another school that will help conduct training classes. He said he's identified three high-crime neighborhoods and estimates it will cost $300 to $350 to arm each person who signs up. 

He stressed that everyone who applies for the free shotgun will have to go through the standard background check. 

"Everyone will go through a background check. There is no getting around it," he said. 

As for the criticism, he said the initiative is a product of the city council's failure to adequately fund public safety. 

"The Democrats are the ones to blame. ... They're the ones that fail to fund public safety," he said. "They are failing the citizens. The citizens are reacting." 

But others expressed concern about the unintended consequences of such a program. 

Councilwoman Regina Romero told the Arizona Daily Star that the plan to proliferate shotguns is "reckless." 

"Why doesn't he hand them out around his neighborhood?" she asked. 

The project comes amid a tense debate regarding the need for new gun laws, in the wake of mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado and most recently Connecticut. 

Nearby Colorado recently passed a package of firearms measures that continue to be fiercely debated. In Washington, the Senate is preparing to vote on a package of measures that address gun trafficking and background checks -- another proposal to renew the national assault weapons ban will likely get a vote, but faces heavy resistance.