HOUSTON – A gun shop is running a radio commercial advising Houstonians to arm themselves against Katrina evacuees, contributing to rising tensions between longtime residents and the storm refugees who have been blamed for the city's rising crime rate.
Gun shop owner and radio talk-show host Jim Pruett said Thursday that he started running the ad a few weeks ago after hearing a TV interview with a Katrina evacuee in Houston implied he would have to turn to crime if his government assistance ran out.
"There are many evacuees here who are working," said Pruett, owner of Jim Pruett's Guns & Ammo in Houston. "They have become Houstonians now. That is fantastic. That is what you are supposed to do. You are not supposed to threaten the place you are working in."
The city welcomed at least 250,000 evacuees after Katrina swamped New Orleans last year. As many as 120,000 evacuees remain in Houston.
According to police, Katrina evacuees are suspects or victims in 59 of Houston's 262 homicides between Jan. 1 and Aug. 26. Residents in upper-middle-class west Houston have blamed evacuees for violent crime rates that have increased almost 14 percent in one district and homicides that have nearly doubled in another.
Pruett's radio ad says: "When the 'Katricians' themselves are quoted as saying the crime rate is going to go up if they don't get more free rent, then it's time to get your concealed-handgun license."
Pruett, 62, said that gun sales at his store are up 50 percent from last year but that he was uncertain whether it had anything to do with fear of the evacuees.
State figures show that from January to Sept. 1, the number of concealed-carry permits issued for handguns was up almost 25 percent from the same period a year ago in Harris County, which includes Houston.
Black activists held a community meeting Thursday evening where they blasted negative stereotypes of evacuees created by Pruett's ad, as well as media reports that they believe portray all evacuees as criminals.
They also took issue with comments earlier this month by independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, who attributed a spike in Houston's crime rate to the "crackheads and thugs" who evacuated New Orleans.
But community activist Quanell X said Houstonians and evacuees "can't protect the criminal element around us. Let's talk about hitting the streets and dealing with the criminal problem."
Roshondra Lowe, 29, an evacuee from New Orleans who was among about 30 people attending the meeting, said she doesn't want Houstonians to prejudge displaced residents like herself.
"It's a bunch of nonsense," she said, citing the city's high crime rate before the storm.
A spokesman for Mayor Bill White said that crime overall is down in Houston but there are some areas that were hotspots before the hurricane and continue to be.
"Mr. Pruett has made his career as a shock jock and is using this tactic to sell guns," spokesman Frank Michel said. "The vast majority of evacuees who came here are hardworking, law-abiding citizens."