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On Otis McDonald and his lawsuit challenging Chicago’s 1982 handgun ban

Otis McDonald sued for the right to own a handgun in Chicago, and the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on June 28. Read his story, from our archives

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Meet the plaintiffs: These four Chicago residents (from left), Adam Orlov, David and Colleen Lawson, and Otis McDonald, have sued to repeal the city’s ban on handgun possession. Their case will be heard by the Supreme Court in February.
Meet the plaintiffs: These four Chicago residents (from left), Adam Orlov, David and Colleen Lawson, and Otis McDonald, have sued to repeal the city’s ban on handgun possession. Their case will be heard by the Supreme Court in February.

 

When Otis McDonald bought his house in Morgan Park in 1971, the purchase represented a generational milestone of sorts: One of 12 children born to Louisiana sharecroppers, McDonald left the farm at 17 to find work in the big city, and, after struggling for many years in low-paying seasonal jobs, was hired as a janitor by the University of Chicago in the early sixties. He eventually earned a coveted skilled union position as a building-maintenance engineer, a job he kept until he retired.

Today McDonald, a bright-eyed and trim 76-year-old grandfather, considers himself one of few defenders of peace and security on the leafy, house-lined street where three of his children grew up and played. The gangbangers and drug dealers have taken over, he says. “You go out there in the morning and pick up bottles and things on the lawn,” he explains, describing events of the past summer. “They’re out there at three in the morning, in the middle of the street, drinking and smoking their stuff. They throw stuff all over your lawn, and you can’t say anything, because they might up and shoot you.” McDonald says his house has been broken into three times and his garage twice—most recently, early one morning this past August by a man McDonald recognized from around the neighborhood. Does McDonald think the robber planned to sell the stolen possessions for drugs? “Of course, of course,” he says matter-of-factly.

Otis McDonald wants a handgun—a pistol to carry around the house and keep on his bedside table at night. An avid hunter, he has two shotguns in the house, but he says those weapons are too unwieldy to use when facing a midnight intruder. More to the point, McDonald believes that if Chicago residents were allowed to keep handguns in their homes, criminals would think twice before breaking in—a fairly common rationale among gun-rights supporters. McDonald, however, is no ordinary gun-rights supporter: In 2008, he joined three other residents in a lawsuit to get rid of the city’s handgun ban, the most restrictive gun law in the country and probably the most far-reaching because of Chicago’s size.

Fulfilling a longtime goal of the gun lobby, two years ago the Supreme Court upended a 70-year-old precedent and ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to own a handgun—at least in Washington, D.C., and other areas under federal jurisdiction. Now McDonald v. City of Chicago, to be argued in February, will determine if the ruling applies to the states and cities. If Chicago’s law falls, will the city be flooded with guns and a resulting wave of deadly shootouts? No one really thinks so—but the ramifications may be far-reaching in other important ways.

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Photography by Tom Maday

 

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