Chicagoans hope stories will help overturn gun ban
Published: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 9:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 9:50 p.m.
CHICAGO — A couple worries that burglars who tried to break in when the wife was home alone will return. A retiree fears the drug dealers and junkies just outside his window will attempt — again — to steal what he spent a lifetime earning. And a businessman wants to protect himself as he could when he was a police officer.
Together, they are the face of the most serious challenge yet to Chicago's 28-year-old handgun ban.
On Tuesday, the four will take their seats inside the U.S. Supreme Court as their attorneys argue a lawsuit that bears their names: David and Colleen Lawson, Otis McDonald and Adam Orlov.
The four plaintiffs are not stereotypical gun rights advocates. They don't represent the agenda of any national group or organize rallies. Instead they represent average Chicagoans — the kind of people that opponents of the city's ban say should be allowed to protect themselves from gun violence.
"Some people want to stereotype advocates in any case, to make them look like a bunch of crazies," said Alan Gura, a Virginia attorney who will argue the case. "But these are plaintiffs who reflect the city in which they live."
Chicago's ban on the sale and possession of handguns has been weathering legal challenges for years. But it gained newfound attention after the Supreme Court in 2008 struck down a similar handgun ban in the District of Columbia. The court now plans to decide whether the ruling on D.C., a city with unique federal status, should apply to local and state laws, too.
The lead plaintiffs in the Chicago suit decided to fight the city's gun ban for different reasons.
For the Lawsons, it stemmed from a scare in 2006, when Colleen Lawson was home alone with the flu and three men tried to jimmy open her back door. They ran off when they saw her through a window.
"That's how close they were to getting in," said Lawson, 51.
The Lawsons believe a handgun would allow them to protect their family and give them the kind of peace of mind Colleen Lawson had as a child, when she knew her grandmother kept a pistol in her apron.
"I knew without any doubt my grandmother would be able protect us," she said. "I can't say that to my children."
Seventy-six-year-old McDonald knows the feeling.
He came to Chicago from Louisiana when he was 17, as part of the Great Migration of blacks. He worked his way up from a janitor to a maintenance engineer, a good job that allowed him and his wife to buy a house on the city's far South Side in 1972, where they raised their family.
In recent years, McDonald, now a grandfather, has watched the neighborhood deteriorate, the quiet nights he once enjoyed replaced by the sound of gunfire, drunken fights and shattering liquor bottles.
Three times, he says, his house has been broken into — once the front door was wide open and the burglars still out front when his wife and daughter came home from church. A few years ago, he called police to report gunfire, only to be confronted by a man who told him he'd heard about that call and threatened to kill him.
"I just got the feeling that I'm on my own," said McDonald. "The fact is that so many people my age have worked hard all their life, getting a nice place for themselves to live in ... and having one (handgun) would make us feel a lot more comfortable."
Orlov didn't grow up with guns and doesn't hunt. But his four years as a police officer only underscored his belief that people hurt by the city's handgun ban are those obeying it.
"The law only prohibits the actions of those who are law-abiding," said Orlov, 40. "The more law-abiding the more likely you are to be vulnerable to the activities of criminals."
The Lawsons and Orlov reached out to Gura after reading that he was representing a man in the case challenging the Washington, D.C. ban, and all three went to the Supreme Court to watch oral arguments in that case.
Otis was put in touch with Gura after driving 200 miles to the Illinois capital, Springfield, for a gun-rights rally — a last resort, he said, after decades of attending neighborhood watch meetings only to see nothing change.
Mayor Richard Daley said Monday that he was confident Chicago would prevail and stressed that cities and states should be able to decide how best to protect their citizens.
"We have the right for health and safety to pass reasonable laws dealing with the protection and health of the people of the city of Chicago," Daley said.
It's uncertain whether the plaintiffs' involvement in the case will help their cause.
"The Supreme Court decides issues, it does not decide for or against particular people," said Benna Ruth Solomon, deputy corporation counsel in Chicago's law department's appeals division.
Even so, the four Chicagoans are part of the case for a reason.
Selecting sympathetic plaintiffs is certainly is "an effective communications strategy to show the public that many people who support gun rights and guns are not kooks," said Adam Samaha, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.
And it might help sway the justices, too.
For one thing, Samaha said, while the stories of the individual plaintiffs would not be relevant if justices' questions only centered on the original intent behind the right to bear arms and equal protections. But they might be important if the questions turned to how today's courts enforce such rights.
The four are not the only plaintiffs — the Second Amendment Foundation, an anti-gun control group, and the Illinois State Rifle Association are also named — but they are the face of the case.
Had the National Rifle Association been the lead plaintiff, the lawsuit would be about a pro-gun rights group that wants to "use the courts to achieve some policy victory," Samaha said.
"Better to have Otis than the NRA," said Samaha said.
Gura said the lives of his clients are — and should be — an important part of the case.
"The right to have guns for self-defense is vitally important to a broad range of people, and the plaintiffs in this case reflect that reality. ... Otis and Colleen's experiences demonstrate that crime in Chicago is not a theoretical concept," he said.