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Pleading self-defense

Crime | A local D.C. official proposes a controversial solution to her community's crime problem: guns

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

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.

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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 . . ."

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