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D.C. gun views shaped by a history of violence

Gun control, for many D.C. residents, has always been more personal than ideological, regardless of where they stand on the issue.
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Gun control, for many D.C. residents, has always been more personal than ideological, regardless of where they stand on the issue.

Take Maurice Benton, who hates yesterday's Supreme Court decision, and Sandra Seegars, who loves it. Each lives in a Southeast Washington community -- he in Barry Farm, she in Congress Park -- where it's difficult to find someone who doesn't know someone who has been shot or robbed at gunpoint.

Benton, 20, was shot in the stomach in 2006, had four surgeries and takes medication daily so his body won't reject the donor intestine. Seegars, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, had a brother who was shot to death in 1978; another is imprisoned for fatally shooting someone.

Across town, Stacey Coates, 60, lives in Northwest, three blocks from the Maryland line. She teaches "tolerance through drama" at the Kennedy Center. Reading at the popular restaurant Busboys & Poets yesterday, Coates said more guns won't solve anything.

"If we were still a pioneer country, I would understand [the right to bear arms]," she said. "But we're more civilized than that."

With yesterday's decision to scrap the District's handgun ban, residents from the safest parts of Northwest to the most dangerous sections of Southeast expressed glee that the decision could enable some residents to defend themselves or dismay that it could lead to more chaos.

Some railed against laws that seem to ignore those who import illegal guns into the city but heavily punish those who buy them. Some who have never been robbed said they planned to get a gun. Shooting victims, meanwhile, said they would not.

Edward Matthews, 24, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, said the ban was a source of constant frustration. Matthews lives in Fort Washington, in part, so he can own a handgun, he said, and has often worried about relatives living in the District who could not.

"I have family in D.C. that have been robbed, but they didn't have guns because it was illegal, now they'll probably get something," he said.

Most D.C. residents favor gun ban
Most city residents would disagree. In a Washington Post poll of D.C. residents in January, 76 percent favored the city's gun law.

Gustavo Cuello, 47, owner of Habitat Home Accents & Jewelry on U Street, said the idea that everyone can own a gun is "completely stupid." He was mugged once in Dupont Circle two years ago, but no weapon was involved. "They talk about guns for hunting or self-defense," he said. "This is 2008!"

The need for self-defense is real to Sorrell Green. He has two pit bulls for safety and favors allowing residents to own guns and carry them. At 61, he has lived in the District for 40 years and has been robbed five times, twice at gunpoint outside his house. "Just having a gun in your house is not going to do you any good on the street," he said. "People need something to protect themselves."

Jeff Canady, an elementary school teacher in Northwest, agreed. A teenager has broken into his mother's Southeast home three times. "The police never did anything," he said. "I have two elderly parents. If it came to that, what else are you going to do [but defend yourself]?"

What most people aren't going to do is shoot someone, said Charles Powell Jr., 73, of Congress Heights in Southeast. His .22-caliber rifle mostly collects dust.

Bernice Callands, 67, who was a District police officer for 27 years, said her handgun, which she owns legally, does the same. Both said they had no qualms about using them to stop an intruder.

But as they prepared for lunch at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center in Southeast yesterday, Callands and Powell said more guns aren't the answer.

"You're wasting your time registering something for nothing," said Callands, adding that she doesn't know anyone clamoring for a gun. "Who wants the gun? We don't need it."

Ronald Cosby, who lives along U Street NW, begs to differ.

"I would love to have a weapon in my home," said Cosby, 58, yesterday as he ate at the 24-Seven cafe. He doesn't know anyone affected by gun violence but plans to buy a gun. "I'll just feel safer, I guess," he said.

'Losing our kids to the streets'
But Sandra Mathis, 38, said too many young people say the same thing. As she waited outside juvenile court yesterday for her nephew's case to be heard, she pondered the effect of guns on her life.

"I lost two nephews to homicide in Southeast," said Mathis, who lives in the Parkland neighborhood in Southeast. "I'm here today because my nephew was charged with having a gun. I feel like we're losing our kids to the streets. How is it made so easy to get a gun?"

Even proponents of the gun ban recognize that it hasn't worked, but they said guns purchased legally could end up in the hands of criminals.

At a news conference in Anacostia, Ronald Moten, co-founder of the anti-violence group Peaceoholics, said the gun ban has not worked well because its enforcement has been uneven, focused solely on those who possess those guns rather than those who sell them. Yesterday, he called on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council to enact stiffer penalties for those who sell guns illegally in the city.

Curtis Watkins, who heads Lifestarts, a community group that mentors at-risk youths, said he worries that more guns purchased legally will be stolen and used for crime. "It's an opportunity to make money," he said.

Julieta Lopez is worried about her children. Two decades ago, she came to this country from a village in southern Mexico. As she walked down Connecticut Avenue NW in Woodley Park with her two boys, 1 and 10, she said she is afraid for her eldest.

"He's going to fifth grade next year, and I hear about all these guns in schools here," she said. "I lived for 20 years in my country, and I felt very safe there."

It's something she misses in the United States, where she says guns are on TV shows and in the news far too much.

Staff writer Sindya Bhanoo contributed to this report.