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."
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.
Police Sgt. Michael Skelly, easing his squad car down Trinidad Avenue on a sundown patrol of the neighborhood last Friday, keeps an eye on the young men who congregate on corners. Local and federal drug agents have focused on the area for years, putting a dent in open-air dealing, and Skelly is driving past row houses and small apartments, tree-lined streets with corner shops where the shop owners work behind bulletproof glass.
"When you hear 'shots fired' on the [dispatch] radio in this neighborhood, you can be pretty sure you're going to find somebody who's been shot," Skelly says, steering the car the wrong way down a one-way street to try to throw off drug dealers' lookouts. "They don't play around, shooting up in the air, over here."
Cocaine dealing on Trinidad Avenue was so busy in the early 1990s that there were traffic jams. Guys just did deals on the corner, in broad daylight, and cars backed up.
Thelma Jackson, a retired U.S. Bureau of Engraving employee, has lived on the street for the past 52 years and watched it all go down.
Jackson liked the neighborhood when she moved in half a century ago. The place had a close, community feel. It was a part of town where you called your neighbors by their first name and you left the front door unlocked. That changed as she and the city aged; now, she often feels uncomfortable -- that faint tingle of fear -- just walking to the bus stop.
She's had her brush with crime. Someone climbed onto her roof several years ago, busted in a trap door, came in and stole cash, televisions, the works. She wasn't home. After getting over the shakes, she put burglar bars over almost every portal in the house.
"I live behind iron bars now," she says.
"I get nervous just reading the morning paper sometimes," she continues. "But a gun -- am I supposed to shoot somebody with it? I'd be so scared with that thing in my hand I'd probably wind up shooting myself."
Two miles and half a world away, U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) has gathered 227 other co-sponsors on his gun bill, which is headed for a vote today. In announcing the bill a couple of weeks ago, he pointed out that the city's murder rate climbed 200 percent from the onset of the handgun ban in 1976 to 1991 -- brutal evidence, he said, that the handgun ban "isn't working."
He did not return seven phone calls in the past week from The Post, but was quoted in the Indianapolis Star yesterday as saying that the issue for the people of the District came down to survival: "Do you believe law-abiding citizens have the right to protect themselves, or do you believe only criminals do?" he said.
That point is hotly debated, but it is clear that Souder hasn't exactly been forthcoming.
By picking 1991 as a comparison, he was using the city's all-time homicide record, plucked from the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, when the entire nation, not just the District, was convulsed by deadly violence. There were 482 murders in the city that year, compared with 188 in 1976 -- which, as it happens, had been the lowest number since the late 1960s.
Left unmentioned is the fact that the city's murder rate has dropped nearly 50 percent since 1991, down to 248 last year and down a further 20 percent this year.
Here's another fact: D.C.'s ban deals only with handguns. More than 101,000 residents have legally registered rifles and shotguns over the decades, according to police, and residents can protect themselves with, say, a buckshot-blasting 12-gauge shotgun, a can't-miss weapon big enough to blow half the living room into the front yard.
Though Lawson wouldn't mind a handgun, she says her neighborhood has stabilized, and is even making progress, because of more civic activism -- she's the area's ANC commissioner -- better city services and increased police surveillance.
"The long-term solution is education, and giving our children a chance. I don't know how people can miss that," she says. "These young kids, these young men out here, they don't grow up wanting to hurt people. The problem is, as a society we don't give them anything to do but get in trouble and have babies. I feel sorry for them, I do. They have so much more materially than we did when I was growing up, but their lives are so . . ."
The thought trails off, unfinished.
"I don't know that a gun solves any of that."