Sonia Wills is a little uncomfortable being cast in the role of symbol.
Six months ago, she was the leading lady in a storybook life. She took loving care of her husband, Tyrone, and her four grown children, and doted on her three grandchildren. She hosted elaborate family dinners of curried goat, oxtails, peas and rice and sorrel wine, favorites from her native Jamaica. She worked at a job that fulfilled her and sang in the choir at a church where she felt nurtured.
At 6 a.m. Oct. 22, Wills's oldest son, Conrad Johnson, 35, a Montgomery County Ride-On bus driver and father of two boys, was fatally shot. Police blamed the Washington area sniper attacks.
Suddenly, Wills was in the spotlight. Reporters were outside her door, police officers wanted to interview her, and well-wishers from far away sent condolences, cards and flowers. She felt heartache like she had never known, terror that her son had died in pain and anger at the senselessness of the violence that took his life
Then came the resolve to do something. Wills thought others should be spared the anguish visited on her and her family. Wills, who works as a paralegal for a Lanham marketing firm, became an outspoken proponent of three bills pending in the Maryland General Assembly that would make it tougher to procure certain weapons and easier for prosecutors to send criminals to jail for committing gun crimes.
One measure would require the state to expand the ban on assault-type weapons; another would expand ballistic fingerprinting from handguns to all firearms; a third would require gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons to police within 48 hours or face penalties if the guns are used in crimes.
"These laws make sense, and they will help stop people who are unstable or irresponsible from having access to these dangerous guns," said Wills, 61, of Fort Washington. "I had always been a supporter of gun control, but after my son got killed, I knew I had to do something to help. I did not want Conrad's death to be in vain."
Maryland state Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery County), who sponsored the ballistic fingerprinting bill, said that she was impressed with Wills's determination to gain approval for the bills.
But they are unlikely to become law this year. Legislators said they expect all three measures to die in committee before the legislative session ends next week. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is opposed to the measures.
But Forehand pledged to propose the ballistic fingerprinting legislation again next year, and the rest of the package also is likely to be revived.
"It just makes sense," Forehand said. "We already have legislation that provides for ballistic fingerprinting of handguns. It makes sense to do the same for rifles."
Forehand said that Wills was a persuasive lobbyist when she testified last month.
"I was so impressed with her," she said. "Ms. Wills spoke up, and people listened. A lot of people would find it hard to say no to her. I really admire her for coming forward. I hope she will continue with this for as long as it takes."
Khalid Pitts, state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said gun control advocates are fighting for legislation to control long guns, such as the Bushmaster rifle that killed Johnson, because of the proliferation of such guns in connection with Maryland crimes. Statistics show that more than 25 percent of gun crimes in Baltimore last year were committed with long guns, Pitts said.
Attempts to reach a representative of the National Rifle Association for comment regarding opposition to the legislation were unsuccessful.
Federal law enforcement officials use a computerized system called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network to match ballistic evidence to crimes. In addition, Maryland created a supplementary ballistic fingerprint database containing a casing fired from every new handgun sold in the state since October 2000, but the system is not used for rifles or shotguns, Pitts said.
Pitts said that many of the weapons targeted by Wills already were banned by Congress in 1994, and Maryland followed with its own law in 1996. But there was a flaw in the way the laws were written. They specified certain model names instead of gun characteristics. So gun manufacturers produced weapons with similar design features and different names that are not covered by the ban.
Furthermore, a sunset clause on the federal legislation limited it to 10 years, meaning that the ban will expire next year. So supporters believe it is important to act soon, fearing that Congress might not extend the ban.
Six months ago, guns and violence were far from Wills's existence. She had spent her adult life caring for her family after emigrating from Jamaica at age 33 in the hope of a better life for them. Her husband worked on military bases, and her children grew up disciplined and nurtured.
Conrad attended Friendly High School in Fort Washington, where former classmates remember him as friendly and carefree. When he grew up, he stayed near his parents. Eight years ago, he got married. He and his wife, Denise, settled into a comfortable life. He coached basketball and football at the Fort Washington Boys & Girls Club and enjoyed a hobby of being a disc jockey for reggae and rhythm-and-blues music, mostly at functions thrown by family and friends.Police said that Johnson was the last victim of the Washington area sniper attacks, which left 10 people dead and three injured in a streak of violence that made local residents afraid to venture outside their homes last fall. John Allen Muhammad, 42, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, have been charged in connection with the shootings.
Muhammad, a former soldier, is scheduled for trial in Prince William County in October on capital murder charges in the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, who was shot at a gas station outside Manassas. Malvo is scheduled for a November capital murder trial in Fairfax County in the Oct. 14 slaying of Linda Franklin, 47, who was shot outside a Home Depot store at the Seven Corners shopping area.
Wills, an elegant woman with long silver waves and a delicate Caribbean accent, said she plans to attend the trials of the men accused of killing her son. She said does not hate them, but she wonders how anyone could victimize so many people.
She said her family is still suffering the loss of Johnson.
"He was a wonderful man, and his family misses him," she said. "His sons will never get over this. His wife is without her husband, and they made each other so happy. I have only seen his children and wife twice since he was killed.
"I wish I could see them more frequently. Things will never be the same with any of us."
Wills last saw her son two weeks before he was slain, when the family gathered for dinner at her home. A white van had been seen in the vicinity of the Prince George's County high school attended by Johnson's oldest son. Many in the Washington area had come to connect such a vehicle to the sniper shootings after a witness told police that a white van was seen near an earlier shooting. The family had discussed taking precautions, but Johnson balked at the idea of altering his life because of the snipers, Wills said.
After the sniper attacks left some of his riders fearful, Johnson would sometimes escort them to and from the bus to make them feel safer, Wills said.
"I told him, 'Conrad, you can't do that. You stay on that bus.' He said, 'Ma, what am I supposed to do, drive with my head down? I can't live like that.' "
Wills said: "Everybody was afraid, but Conrad was not. Why he would try to be a shield for someone else, I couldn't understand. That's just the kind of man that he was."
After Johnson's slaying, Wills said, her pain was so overwhelming that it sometimes almost took her breath away. She is better now, but the tears still come, such as when she thinks about the last Thanksgiving dinner, when Johnson talked her into serving him his favorite Jamaican breakfast foods -- ackee and codfish, boiled green bananas and dumplings -- and then devoured the dinner she had prepared of Chinese pork, two kinds of turkey, rice and peas, oxtails and sorrel wine.
"He was just such a loving person," Wills said.
Wills joined with gun control advocates in February after she and Johnson's widow filed suit against the manufacturer of the Bushmaster rifle, seeking unspecified damages.
Wills testified twice in February in Annapolis, including once with Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose.
In a subdued tone, Wills told legislators that "despite the terror that struck our community last fall, Conrad believed that life should be enjoyed, not lived in fear. But on the morning of October 22, 2002, at 6 a.m., standing in the doorway of the bus he drove, a coward in a nearby wooded area took his life with a powerful Bushmaster rifle."
She said she was "morally outraged," along with millions of other Maryland residents, that a debate continues to swirl around the issue of gun control.
"This is not about gun control," she said. "This is about public safety.
"This is about giving law enforcement all the tools they need to protect Maryland families from gun crime."
Being a citizen lobbyist is not easy. Wills spent about two minutes with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Del. Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George's) to urge him to support the measures. Then she waited for five hours as other gun control measures were heard by the panel. Finally, about 6 p.m. one recent day, after several of the proponents of the measures, including Baltimore County State's Attorney Pat Jessamy, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler and former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms supervisor Joe Vince, had left. Wills took another turn before the legislators. Then it took her almost three hours to get home to Fort Washington. A toxic spill on Route 50 had snarled traffic.
But Wills has pledged to keep up the fight by putting her experience front and center, by serving as a symbol of a family's anguish.
"This is important for me to do, so I am going to do it," she said. "I wish I had my life back. I wish I had my son back. None of these laws will bring Conrad back. But they will go a long way toward making sure that other parents and families will not have to suffer as we have, so that is what I am committed to do."