WASHINGTON, D.C.- Crumbling rowhouses, liquor stores, and pockmarked streets highlight the neighborhood where D.C. city official Sandra Seegars lives-but a hand-painted sign near her home boasts, "There have been no murders on this block."
Miss Seegars draws a diagram on the back of an orange flier to illustrate how dangerous her neighborhood is. Crisscrossing lines in a grid represent a five-block area around her home. She points her pen to streets on her map: "Several people have been killed up here, and at least two in the last year here. There was a drive-by right here. There was a shooting right here, but the guy didn't die."
All those murders happened after the city's near-total prohibition on guns took effect in 1976. "How dare they have a gun when it's against the law?" she asks sarcastically. D.C.'s Firearms Control Regulations Act, unique in America, restricts anyone from owning a handgun not registered with city police 30 years ago. Police refuse to issue permits for any weapon obtained after that time. Weapons registered before that date must be stored "unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock or similar device," rendering the weapon useless.
Even though no one has ever been murdered while on Miss Seegars' block, she speaks of burglaries in terms of "the last time someone broke into my house." Several years ago someone set her car on fire. A prostitute standing on the corner described seeing a man in an orange, hooded shirt set the blaze.
"I think we should have guns at least in our homes and be allowed to have them loaded," Miss Seegars says-but such comments anger her boss, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, a pro-gun-control Democrat like almost every other members of the D.C. city council.
When the U.S. House of Representatives voted in 2005 to allow residents to defend themselves with guns in their homes, Mr. Williams called the amendment "a slap in the face." Nearly every member of the city council protested lifting the gun ban, and the Senate never acted on the bill.
Miss Seegars vocally opposes her colleagues and, as head of the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission, wants taxi drivers to be able to protect themselves from thugs by carrying a holstered pistol. A Metropolitan Police press release on Dec. 23, 2005, detailed six taxicab robberies since November.
Not all cab drivers could arm themselves legally-some are felons and many are not U.S. citizens-but, Miss Seegars says, criminals "wouldn't know which ones did and which ones didn't have a gun." Under her proposal cab drivers would "need to go through all the proper regulations and training [and] be a citizen of sound mind." She estimates that 700 of the 7,000 drivers she represents would be both able and willing to carry a weapon on the job.
Her proposal has stirred up controversy, as did her earlier comment that cab drivers should avoid dangerous, low-income black neighborhoods and "dangerous looking" passengers, such as the "young black guy . . . with his hat on backwards, shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants down below his underwear and unlaced tennis shoes."
Appalled city officials called her statements racist, and interim commission chairman George W. Crawford said that drivers following Miss Seegars' recommendations would be subject to a $500 fine and license suspension or revocation.
But Miss Seegars, a street-tough black woman, knows about dangerous neighborhoods. Raised in public housing until she was 18, her brothers became involved in drugs and thug activity. Her oldest brother, James Seegars, took up robbing banks in the mid-1970s, until a friend who betrayed him shot him in the head. Her younger brother, Marvin Seegars, was one of the "Pizza Hut Bandits" who targeted those restaurants and stuffed employees into freezers before making off with cash. He is serving a life-plus-20-year sentence for murdering a man in 1980.
Part of the reason Miss Seegars is so adamant about legalizing guns is because she is familiar with the mindset of bad guys: "I know from my brothers being criminals that they like easy targets. . . . The drivers are just out there trying to make a living, and they're going to get killed for a couple dollars."
The Metropolitan Police's Third District Auto Theft Unit agrees with Miss Seegars. Officer Farid Fawzi stood up from behind his desk in the basement-level office of the police station when asked about guns and said, "Make them legal. In [Prince Georges County, Maryland] you can have a gun and even though things are getting bad now, they have never had the problems we have." Gathering his gear from around the office, he strapped on a Kevlar vest and continued: "I think it would be interesting to see what kind of changes there would be if guns were legal. I know shootings would be up . . ."
Officer Norman Rahman interjected: "Just at first."
"Sure, for a while," Officer Fawzi said, "until we go through the whole campaign of training residents about how to use guns to defend themselves. When you live in the city what are you supposed to do to defend yourself?"
Officer Joe O'Rourke walked through the door and joined the discussion: "I feel no safer working in a city with strict gun laws than in a city without gun laws." He should know. Before joining D.C.'s Third District, the well-traveled officer served 26 years on the New York City police force, then spent several years in the Secret Service and a little while with police departments in Florida.
If stricter gun laws stopped crime, D.C. would be the safest place in the country. But crooks still have guns and the homicide rate has been among the worst in the nation for more than 20 years. Guns are prevalent on D.C. streets in spite of aggressive law enforcement. MPD recovered 2,316 guns in 2005.
Guns alone are not the problem to Officer Fawzi. He owns nearly a dozen. He is, however, aggressive about enforcing the law because in D.C. illegal guns are owned by people wanting to commit illegal activities. Officer Fawzi says a legal gun in well-trained hands can save lives: "I think everyone should have a gun in their house for self-defense."
And as for the risk of his gun falling into the hands of the crook? "Train yourself so it won't be used against you. You go to school to learn how to drive. Learn how to use a gun."
The controversy about gun laws is one that top city officials do not want. Late last year Miss Seegars learned that she will not be reappointed for another term. That very day a cabdriver was killed during a robbery. She says, "I really wasn't too concerned about guns until I was appointed to the taxicab commission. City officials get mad at me for not touting the government line. But just that someone would think about [drivers] enough to say that they should be allowed to arm themselves to defend themselves. That means a lot to them."