While shopping at a Safeway near Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington on Tuesday, Wayne Wiggins came upon a Budweiser display that featured real haystacks surrounded by six packs of beer and topped by two realistic-looking models of .357 magnum handguns.
"I swear, I tried to walk by and not say anything," Wiggins told me, recalling that Budweiser employees were putting the finishing touches on the beer company's cowboy motif when he finally broke down and spoke up. "I said, 'Hey, guys, you've got to remove those guns.' I said, 'There is no way I will allow those guns to stay, even if I have to steal them myself.' "
Wiggins became so frustrated that he ended up throwing his Safeway card at an assistant manager, vowing never to shop at the store again and calling on every customer within earshot to boycott the store.
He left before store security could remove him.
After phoning in his protests to the corporate offices of Safeway and Budweiser, as well as the office of D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, Wiggins called me to let off some steam.
The last time we spoke, back in 1994, he was preparing to bury his 20-year-old son, Chris. The young man had been killed in a drive-by shooting, and Wiggins was trying to keep his son's friends from turning the funeral into a gangster gathering at which guns and drugs would be placed in the coffin and malt liquor poured over the grave.
"No more profiteering off the bloodshed, with crews renting limousines and wearing black 'We Love You' T-shirts," Wiggins had declared angrily. "Let his crew live with the image of my son laid out on cold concrete under a sheet."
Now, a decade later, he was sounding just as traumatized.
"I'm saying to myself, 'This can't be real,' " said Wiggins, who is 49. "Who in their right mind would put up a display that mixes alcohol and guns, right after a 13-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl have been shot and killed in the city? It was like they were preparing to celebrate the congressional repeal of the city's gun ban."
Multiply Wiggins, with his pain and anger, by the thousands of others who have been affected by gun violence in the District in the past 10 years, and you might get some idea of how deeply wounded this city really is.
Add in the fact that concern over this year's surge in the killings of juveniles by gunfire has been far less obvious than, say, the palpable excitement about the prospect of getting a baseball team, and it could be said that the District's soul sickness is exceeded only by the soullessness of those who ignore the suffering.
"These guys were putting up this display and claiming it was just a way to promote beer and a special sale on Angus beef," Wiggins said. "They could not have cared less if some kid walked off with one of those guns and ended up being shot by police who thought it was real. The idea of having realistic-looking guns on display in a grocery store, within reach of any kid, totally escaped them. Somebody must have put something in the water."
A former military school student and member of the rifle team, Wiggins is no gun-shy shrinking violet. He drinks beer, too. But no amount of booze could relieve the heartache caused by what he sees as a growing disregard for human life.
"My 15-year-old son is in the Junior ROTC and wants a military career," he said. "My God, what if they bring back the draft? I pray every night: 'Please, God, I lost one. Don't take the other."
When I visited Safeway on Thursday, the guns had been taken down from the display, which had picked up two scarecrows.
Asked if Wiggins's complaints had caused the guns to be removed, an assistant manager told me, "No. We just weren't supposed to have guns in the store."
What's important is that Wiggins took a stand and held his ground until the guns were gone.