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Arm Against 'Katricians,' Gun Dealers Tell Houston

Hurricane evacuees protest as hostility spills out over rising crime rates in the city.
By Miguel Bustillo, Times Staff Writer
September 18, 2006

HOUSTON — When the "Katricians" rise up in violence, Houstonians had better be packing some serious heat.

That's the inflammatory message of a new gun-shop commercial on the radio that gives Hurricane Katrina evacuees a vaguely alien-sounding name, and advises Texans to take up arms to defend themselves against crimes committed by the newcomers.

"When the 'Katricians' themselves are quoted as saying the crime rate is gonna go up if they don't get more free rent, then it's time to get your concealed-handgun license," warns the radio ad by Jim Pruett, who co-hosts a bombastic talk-radio show and owns Jim Pruett's Guns & Ammo, a self-styled "anti-terrorist headquarters" that sells knives, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles and other weapons. As Pruett describes the dangers posed by "Katricians," glass can be heard shattering, and a bell tolling ominously.

The radio spot highlights what many gun-store owners say is a hot trend in Houston: trade in weapons amid a surge in the homicide rate that police attribute to the more than 100,000 hurricane evacuees still in the city. Though the gun sale reports are largely anecdotal, Texas officials said applications for concealed-weapons permits were up statewide: 60,328 from Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 this year, compared with 46,298 for the same period last year.

The Houston Police Department estimates that one in five homicides in the city now involves Katrina evacuees — as suspect, victim or both. Many Houston residents, including some evacuees, are worried that crime will only get worse once housing and other public assistance end.

Hurricane evacuees and the nonprofit groups that have been helping them rebuild their lives are saddened by what they see as a growing tendency in Texas to stereotype the predominantly African American newcomers as hoodlums, based on the crimes of a few.

Parnell "Herb" Herbert, a spoken-word artist and community organizer from New Orleans who wound up in Houston after the hurricane, said he chafed at being called a Katrina evacuee because he believed the label had taken on a negative connotation in the media and did not describe who he was.

"I am not a Katrina evacuee; I am a New Orleanian living in Houston. I am a father, a grandfather, a Vietnam vet," Herbert said.

"Now this guy wants to call me a 'Katrician' or 'Katrinanite' or whatever, which sounds like Martian or something," he added. "It's frightening to see what is happening. When we were brought here from Africa, we were dehumanized."

Though evacuees seethe over the generalizations, they are no longer surprised to hear them expressed. This month, Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, a cigar-chomping humorist and musician running a populist campaign, joined the chorus of anti-evacuee sentiment.

"The musicians and artists have mostly moved back to New Orleans now," Friedman said. "The crackheads and the thugs have decided to stay here. They want to stay here. I think they got their hustle on, and we need to get ours."

Friedman later clarified that he was not calling all evacuees in Texas crackheads and thugs, and his campaign disclosed that the independent candidate had been housing a New Orleans musician friend since the storm. Nonetheless, evacuees and activists accused him of pandering to voters' racial prejudice.

Hostility toward evacuees also spilled out during an emotional community meeting in west Houston on Aug. 30, when a packed crowd of 1,700 demanded that Mayor Bill White send the Louisianans home. The west Houston area has been housing the majority of evacuees, and has been particularly hard hit by the increase in homicides.

Houston's Police Patrolmen's Union, which is in a nasty political fight with Police Chief Harold Hurtt, has put up billboards that portray the city as unsafe.

In that climate, many gun dealers report strong sales and maintain that customers are citing an evacuee-fueled crime rate as the reason they are choosing to arm themselves.

"When crime rates shoot up, business goes up. It's that simple," said Art May, 50, owner of the Republic Arms shop. "Right now, with the news talking about crime being high in Houston because of all the Katrina people, people who have been putting off getting a gun are finally coming in. These aren't people looking for high-dollar hunting rifles. They're looking for weapons of self-defense."

May said he believed gun buying had peaked, because his sales, which were up 50% at one point, had slowed in recent weeks. Some gun dealers questioned whether there ever was a trend, saying that although sales were strong just after the storm, they quickly trailed off.

But at Jim Pruett's Guns & Ammo, in a strip mall on the northwest outskirts of town, the staff said business was booming, thanks in part to Pruett's ad.

The store has always sold its gear with a sense of humor: Its website plays "Bad Boys," the theme from the television show "Cops," and advises, "Be polite and courteous, but have a plan to KILL everybody you meet." The walls are lined with pistol-grip shotguns and semiautomatic rifles, and glass cases full of oversize knives and handguns for seemingly every taste — from $400 pistols to a massive tiger-striped Desert Eagle for $1,600.

During the lunch hour on Friday, Pruett, 62, played a recording of his radio spot and sounded quite pleased with himself. "God, that's great," he said.

As he sat behind the counter, beneath coils of ornamental razor wire along the ceiling, he said he did not consider his commercial racist and had no regrets.

"The storm washed up a lot of people who live off crime and getting the loot," he said. "The people who are here and have gotten jobs, that's a wonderful thing. They're Houstonians now. But the people who are still unemployed a year later, who are just sitting around doing nothing, they're 'Katricians.' That's the way I see it."

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