Amid Violence, Chicagoan Fights For Right To Bear Arms

He's a hero to the National Rifle Association for fighting to overturn Chicago's ban on handguns and now he wants to be among the first in Chicago to carry a concealed weapons. 79-year-old Chicagoan Otis McDonald took on city hall and won, big time, in his own personal fight for his right to bear arms — his way of trying to reduce the gun violence that plagues his and other neighborhoods in Chicago, even though many of his neighbors aren't thrilled about McDonald's Second Amendment activism.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This past weekend in Chicago was a violent one, the bloodiest of the year so far. Nearly 50 people were shot. Nine of them died. The level of gun violence in some Chicago neighborhoods has put the city at the center of the national debate about gun control. Many Chicagoans favor strict gun laws. And then there's 79-year-old Otis McDonald. NPR's David Schaper introduces us to the man who fought the city's ban on handguns and won.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Even on this almost perfect warm and sunny day, it's pretty quiet on this tree-lined street on Chicago's South Side. There are a few people out, planting flowers, trimming hedges and sprucing up their yards. And on this block of modest single-family homes in two and three flats, most everyone knows each other, waves and says hi.

WILLA GAYDEN: Hey, Sweetie. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good. How are you?

GAYDEN: I'm fine. How's mama?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She's good.

GAYDEN: Good.

SCHAPER: Willa Gayden(ph) has lived on this block for more than 30 years, and she considers it quite safe.

GAYDEN: Really, actually, we haven't had any crime around here. You know, a lot of things happening in other areas, but we really haven't had any. It's been wonderful. It's beautiful. You know, people being - you hear of people getting shot and stuff. It's been nice here.

SCHAPER: Gayden says when there has been trouble on the block over the years, she and her neighbors make sure to look out for one another. And one person who seems to be keeping an eye on things more than most is Otis McDonald, a 79-year-old retired maintenance engineer who lives near the middle of the block in a neat, two-story, white frame house.

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SCHAPER: On a busy morning with his wife, daughter and granddaughter in the kitchen, McDonald shows me around the tidy home he's lived in the past 40 years and talks about the neighborhood.

OTIS MCDONALD: When I first moved here in 1972, it was nice.

SCHAPER: But McDonald says about 20 years ago, things began to change, and he was targeted by troublemakers in the neighborhood.

MCDONALD: Somebody started breaking into the house, and they started up and down the streets, you know, selling drugs, making noises with the boom boxes and all this stuff. And that got to be pretty hairy.

SCHAPER: At night, McDonald says he'd sometimes hear gunshots, and he says he paid a price for calling the police to report the drug deals, fights and other disturbances.

MCDONALD: They got pretty rough in the area. Then they threatened my life.

SCHAPER: McDonald feared for his and his family's safety. He had a hunting rifle but felt it wasn't enough.

MCDONALD: That long gun is not a gun for defending yourself in your home. I've been in service. I know the routine. I was born and raised in Louisiana. I've been handling guns since I was 5 years old. I know what I need to defend myself.

SCHAPER: But in 1982, the city of Chicago banned the sale and possession of handguns, something McDonald says didn't make sense to him because it only kept law-abiding citizens from having guns while lawbreakers still had easy access to them. Unsure of where to turn for help and support, McDonald attended an Illinois State Rifle Association rally. People there put him in touch with the Second Amendment Foundation, which was looking for a lead plaintiff to challenge Chicago's handgun ban.

He fit the bill perfectly, and together, they filed Otis McDonald v City of Chicago in 2008. He took the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 2010. McDonald says since then, crime on his block is down, and he feels safer at home. But now, he wishes he could legally carry a concealed handgun outside of his home.

MCDONALD: If trouble arise out there in the street, I can't use my inherited right to protect myself.

SCHAPER: Illinois will soon be the last state to allow residents to carry concealed guns. The federal appeals court in Chicago overturned Illinois' ban in December. State lawmakers last month passed concealed carry regulations, and Governor Pat Quinn has until July 9 to decide whether to sign the bill. Once Illinois has its concealed carry law in place, Otis McDonald says he plans to apply for a permit, and neighbor Ed Johnson, who lives across the alley behind McDonald, understands why.

ED JOHNSON: That's because of all the trouble he had over there, you know? They were pulling out guns on him. I guess he wanted to defend himself.

SCHAPER: Are you OK with that as a neighbor, like...

JOHNSON: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Just so he doesn't have automatic weapons, it's fine.

SCHAPER: Johnson calls Otis McDonald a good neighbor and a wonderful guy, someone you can depend on. But Johnson isn't crazy about guns. He says he used to keep one for protection but got rid of it, fearing one of his grandchildren could find it and get hurt. Recent polling suggests most Illinois voters, and particularly those in Chicago, favor stricter gun laws. A majority of Chicago voters polled also oppose residents being allowed to carry loaded, concealed firearms.

Another of McDonald's neighbors, Rosie Portwood, is among those with strong feelings on the subject.

ROSIE PORTWOOD: As far as guns are concerned, I don't like them. I don't like them personally in the house.

SCHAPER: Portwood says she, too, understands why McDonald wants a gun, but she doesn't think he or anyone should have one. She says...

PORTWOOD: Just ban them altogether.

SCHAPER: That's a feeling several other neighbors seem to agree with, despite Otis McDonald's outspoken Second Amendment activism. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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