By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007
Shelly Parker did everything she could to keep her home safe. She owned a dog. She called D.C. police when she suspected illegal activity on her block. She installed a security camera on her front window.
Her crime-fighting efforts made an impression. One night, Parker found her car window smashed and saw rocks scattered around the vehicle. She felt it was retaliation for her vigilance.
"That really disturbed me to my core," recalled Parker, who said she often received verbal taunts while walking her malamute, Barney, near her home on the northeastern edge of Capitol Hill.
A police officer gave her some advice, Parker said.
Get a gun, he told her.
Parker later joined five other D.C. residents who took the District government to court in an effort to overturn the city's 31-year-old handgun ban. In March, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in their favor, striking down key elements of the restrictive statute by a 2 to 1 vote. Among other things, the judges said the Second Amendment gives residents the right to keep loaded guns in their homes.
The lawsuit bearing her name, Parker vs. the District of Columbia, probably will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The D.C. attorney general's office said that the city will file a petition tomorrow to have the case reheard before the full Court of Appeals. The gun law is expected to remain intact while proceedings unfold.
The court's decision has been hailed by gun-rights organizations and others who consider themselves staunch defenders of constitutional rights. But D.C. officials and gun-control advocates fear wiping out the ban will proliferate violence. Some have argued that the half-dozen residents who filed the lawsuit are outside the norm in a city once labeled the nation's murder capital.
For Parker, the court ruling is a victory for District residents who believe a firearm provides protection when fighting for safe communities. "The only thing between me and somebody entering my home are harsh words," Parker said. "That's all I have."
Robert A. Levy, the lawyer who bankrolled the lawsuit, wanted a diverse group of complainants, and Parker, a 44-year-old software designer, is one of two black female plaintiffs. She said the ban on handguns puts neighborhood activists at risk of being subjected to threats and harassment. Having a pistol in her home would level the playing field, she said.
"It's a deterrent. I think it would give a criminal pause," she said.
Her experience living in a gentrifying corner of the city informed her view. When she first considered buying the yellow house in the 200 block of 14th Place NE, Parker recalled recently, she was charmed by the narrow, one-way street with its clumped rowhouses that almost border the sidewalk.
An Army brat who served in the Navy, Parker had lived in many places and was hardly naive about buying a home in an area some might consider in transition. She did her due diligence, she said, returning to the area at night and on a weekend before deciding to make the purchase.
She moved in February 2002, part of a wave of affluent new homeowners during that time who contributed to a swift escalation of housing prices in the area.
Then spring came, and her "cute, quaint street" took on an entirely different character.
In the warm weather, a group of men loitered on the block, drinking beer, smoking marijuana and attracting a lot of traffic that Parker suspected was related to drug sales. Sometimes they hung out on various front stoops, including her own. Parker noticed that the cars stopped for one young man in particular, who she learned had grown up on the block and whose mother still lived there.
Parker asked her neighbors how they had dealt with the issue in years past.
Most had settled on the path of least resistance, parking their cars and quickly rushing into their homes, they told her. Some black neighbors said that the police didn't pay much attention to the area and patrolled more vigilantly on the other side of Lincoln Park, which was more affluent and white. Parker said some even told her that they were initially disappointed when they saw she was the home buyer. "I had some of my neighbors say, 'I had hoped you were white.' They had hoped it had been somebody who was white, somebody who would really step in and put the fear of God in the drug dealer and stop some of the nonsense going on," she recalled.
Parker started calling the police and took to the streets in orange-hat citizen patrols. When men planted themselves near her house, she told them to take a hike. Her neighbors confirm her recollection of events.
"She didn't have a problem letting them know how she felt," said Elaine Lockard, who lived two doors down from Parker.
Lockard admitted that she had thrown up her hands, driving her car in reverse at times to avoid the posse usually hanging out at the far end of her street.
"After a period of time, you get in that mode -- and it's bad -- where you say it's not happening at my end of the block," said Lockard, who has lived in her house and known some of Parker's adversaries since childhood.
Early one morning, about 1 o'clock, Parker was awakened by a booming noise. Someone had thrown a rock at her front window, but only the first pane of the double-paned glass had broken.
She once again felt threatened. "A gun in my situation would only be used in circumstances when my alarm goes off, it's the middle of the night, I'm dead asleep, I hear glass breaking, and the dog runs under the bed. . . . It's a situation where you yell down the stairs and say, 'I have a gun.' "
Walking in the parking lot near her office in Tysons Corner one day, Parker spotted a car with a bumper sticker that read: http://www.blackmanwithagun.com.
She told the driver about what was happening in her neighborhood. He put her in touch with one of his friends, Alan Gura, one of the lawyers in the gun litigation. She agreed to be a plaintiff but said she was surprised to see her last name prominently associated with the case.
By that time, relations had grown particularly tense with the young man Parker considered the magnet for trouble on her block. One night, Parker said, he shook her iron gate and shouted, "[Expletive], I'll kill you. I live on this block, too."
He was charged with felony threat but was acquitted.
Frustrated by the neighborhood crime, Parker decided about two years ago that it was time to move out of the neighborhood, and she now lives off 14th Street NW near Columbia Heights. Many of her new neighbors do not know of her involvement in the lawsuit, and she was reluctant to be photographed for this article.
"I'm trying to avoid the notoriety of being labeled a gun-toting mama," she said.
Parker is still quite memorable to her 14th Place neighbors. Several said that they understood, and even supported, her view on the handgun ban.
Heather Schoell, who lives around the corner from Parker's old house, agreed that the ban puts law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage. "You're not going to go out on a limb and make waves if you don't have backup," she said.
Inspector Kevin Keegan, who is in charge of the 1st Police District substation, said Parker might create more problems by having a gun. "The success stories of self-defense are few and far between compared to the accidents and negligence and guns being stolen and ending up in crimes and homicides," he said.
That is also the view of several D.C. elected officials, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the District's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who both expressed outrage at the court's decision.
Elizabeth Nelson, who writes the Buzz, a neighborhood newsletter, said that although there are some nuisance crimes on that block, the greater issue is in surrounding streets. The liquor stores in the area, in particular, are magnets for illegal activity. Nelson said she and her husband, who is an advisory neighborhood commissioner, disagree on the gun ban. She said he wants to keep it in place.
"I'm not that upset about the gun ban being overturned," Nelson said.
Parker said that her family largely supports her involvement in the suit. But she said that her sister, who has two children and lives in the Maryland suburbs, told her she is wary of having her children visit if Parker gets a gun in the house.