STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A man charged with protecting the public in Wisconsin says people should instead protect themselves. In a new public service announcement, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke tells residents that due to budget cuts, calling 911 for help is not always the best option. He says it's better to own a gun. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: David Clarke doesn't even need dramatic music. Instead, it's the Milwaukee Country Sheriff's own deep baritone that sets an ominous tone.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
SHERIFF DAVID CLARKE: I'm Sheriff David Clarke and I want to talk to you about something personal, your safety.
SCHAPER: Clarke goes on to say, I need you in the game. And then...
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
CLARKE: You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back. But are you prepared? Consider taking a certified safety course in handling a firearm so you can defend yourself until we get there. You have a duty to protect yourself and your family.
SCHAPER: At a time of intense debate over efforts to strengthen gun controls, this is striking a raw nerve. Critics say Clarke is just mouthing the gun lobby's talking points. Clarke was not available for an interview with NPR, but he has said with fewer resources for his department, he needed to get creative. And on CNN this week he defended his taxpayer funded ad, arguing there are some situations in which 911 is of no use.
CLARKE: Once the wolf is at the door, once the intruder is inside your home, once you're on the street and someone sticks a gun in your face to take your car or your wallet, you don't have the option of calling 911.
SCHAPER: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett takes exception to Clarke's message.
MAYOR TOM BARRETT: That ad implies that the sheriff and the sheriff's forces are going to come to residences when they call 911, that simply isn't true.
SCHAPER: Barrett says it's his city's and nearby suburban police departments that respond to 911 calls, not the county sheriffs. He says response times are fast and Barrett told CNN that calling 911 is still the best option.
BARRETT: To have a sheriff basically imply that it's not going to help you to call 911 I think is irresponsible.
SCHAPER: And the police chiefs agree. Just outside of Milwaukee, the Greenfield Police Department is reminding residents through social media that it has not laid off or furloughed officers, that its response times to calls of violent crime is under two minutes.
JERI BONAVIA: I think he did a great disservice to the people of this community.
SCHAPER: That's Jeri Bonavia with the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort. She says telling Milwaukee County residents that they cannot rely on 911 service sends a dangerous message that could encourage vigilantism. Bonavia and others cite statistics showing that firearms in the home are much more likely to be used in suicides or domestic violence than for self-help. And some residents of Milwaukee's highest crime neighborhoods agree, that having more people arm themselves will not make Milwaukee safer.
DAVID PRICE: I think that's probably one of the problems in Milwaukee is that they got too many guns floating around.
SCHAPER: Forty-seven year old David Price works part time here at the Center Street Market on Milwaukee's North Side.
PRICE: I think people are too irrational. I think they are - tempers fly off the handle too quickly. People are imperfect creatures.
SCHAPER: Some other employees and patrons agree, but not all.
ANTHONY DAVIS: Of course, if you feel threatened in your home, you should be able to bear arms, you know? Especially if you're not a felon and you can own a gun, why not take a class and protect your home?
SCHAPER: Anthony Davis says it's too risky to only rely on the police to respond, especially in higher crime neighborhoods like this one. But across the country, many police officials and organizations actively discourage residents from arming themselves, especially without substantial firearm training, though some acknowledge that Sheriff Clarke might have a point.
DAVE KENIK: It's counter to the culture, but unfortunately he does speak the truth.
SCHAPER: Dave Kenik heads the American Police and Sheriffs Association and he says 911 is still the best first response, but he notes that even when response times are fast, they're not immediate.
KENIK: There's an old saying that when seconds count, the police are minutes away, and, you know, it's very true.
SCHAPER: But it's Milwaukee County's top law enforcement officials' efforts to promote guns for self defense that strikes the wrong chord for many at a time the nation struggles to establish limits aimed at reducing deadly gun violence. David Schaper, NPR News, Milwaukee.