The Great D.C. Gun Debate is not a theoretical issue in the living room of Wilhelmina Lawson. The retiree is sitting in her house in the Northeast neighborhood of Trinidad, one of the most violent places in one of the nation's most violent cities.
"The first year I was here, my son and I walked outside and saw a man from three doors down -- he's still there, he's paralyzed now -- shot in the lower back. It was right out there in the street" -- she raises her right arm and points toward Montello Avenue, which runs in front of her house -- "and there was blood all down the street and it was the worst thing I ever saw."
Wilhelmina Lawson, an activist in the Trinidad neighborhood, says "a gun would make me feel safer. It's what they were invented for."
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Now she raises her left arm, like a scarecrow with arms stretched in opposite directions, and points to the back of her house.
"There was a murder right out there in the alley. I heard the gunshots. And once my son got jumped coming out of the store, and there was the time I was in the front yard when one of the biggest drug dealers in the neighborhood came up and said, while I was weeding the flowers, that he'd heard I was informing on him to the police."
With the House scheduled today to vote on the D.C. Personal Protection Act, which would end the District's ban on handguns and allow residents such as Lawson to pack a pistol to fend off, say, a gunman in the back alley, she confesses that sometimes it does not seem like such a bad idea.
"I might feel safer with a gun in the house," says Lawson, who's also a neighborhood activist. "So, yes, you ask me, a gun would make me feel safer. It's what they were invented for."
But she's ambivalent, too, because the neighborhood is small, and everybody knows everybody else. Maybe people elsewhere fret about faceless strangers busting into their house or accosting them on the street. In Trinidad, as in many of the District's rougher neighborhoods, the drug dealers are not an unknown entity, but rather the former schoolmates, kids or grandkids of people in the next block, if not next door. The teenagers who used to work the corner on Lawson's street with crack cocaine, marijuana and heroin knocked on her front door one night just after she had parked her car.
" 'Mrs. Lawson, you left your lights on,' " she remembers the guy saying, and she laughs.
Thin, with her white hair neatly brushed off to the side, Lawson rarely sits still. The headquarters for her civic association, the Trinidad Concerned Citizens for Reform, is her neatly kept living room, and she moves back and forth in her swivel chair to fetch one document or another as she talks.
She does not really want more guns in the neighborhood, she says. She just wants to feel safe.
That nameless feeling of security, with its warmth and depth of sleep, and the equally nameless feeling of fear, with its anxiety-ridden itchiness, lie at the heart of the debate about the city's ban on handguns. Whether more guns in the hands of people such as Lawson would help or hurt is the nub of the issue.
The mayor, the police chief, the city's nonvoting delegate in Congress and the parents of slain teenagers -- 21 kids have been killed this year, 16 with guns -- have railed against the bill. They have allies on the streets and front porches of Trinidad.
It's a neighborhood only a few blocks long and a few blocks wide, home to 6,347 people, tucked behind Gallaudet University. The per-capita income is $14,126, according to the latest census data, less than half the citywide average. Fewer than half the adults have high school diplomas. The level of violence, spurred by drug rivalries between Trinidad dealers and their counterparts across Bladensburg Road in the neighborhood around the Langston Terrace apartments, has made it one of the deadliest in the city.
The 5th Police District, of which Trinidad is a part, logged 713 murders, 501 sexual assaults and 11,980 aggravated assaults from 1993 to 2002. Residents have long grown weary of gunshots in the dark. Most think the last thing they need is more lead in the air.