Otis McDonald is not afraid—and never has been.
As a teenager, he left home with no money in his pocket to find a better life in Chicago.
In the 1960s, McDonald stood up to bosses who didn’t want to hire him because he’s black.
On the inner-city block where he’s lived for 38 years, the retired building engineer confronted neighborhood thugs who threatened to kill him for reporting them to police.
And now, the 76-year-old grandfather stands fearlessly in the spotlight to face criticism that he’s a sympathetic pawn of the mostly white gun lobby. McDonald is the lead plaintiff in the landmark case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that could overturn Chicago’s handgun ban and potentially change state and municipality gun laws nationwide.
The avid hunter got involved in the pro-gun rights movement when Illinois lawmakers were considering an assault rifle ban in 2005. Worried the ban might outlaw his hunting rifles, McDonald attended a gun rally in Springfield, the state capital.
“I was the only black guy that I saw,” McDonald said. There, he met people who introduced him to Alan Gura, the lead attorney in the suit against Chicago. After a few chats, McDonald agreed to become the face of the lawsuit. At first, he wondered whether he was selected because he’s an older black man living in a sometimes dangerous part of town.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone’s motives were for picking me for this,” he says. “I have my own motives, and they are so compelling and so heavy that to me this is worthy of my effort.”
Over the years, local gang-bangers broke into McDonald’s house three times. They got away with TVs, hunting rifles and ‘‘anything they could sell for a quick buck.’’
McDonald once called 911 after spotting a bad guy leveling a pistol at a fleeing car in the alley next to his front porch. Later, three thugs stopped him on the street and threatened to “put him down.” McDonald reported that incident to police, too, and had the guys arrested.
Chicago banned handguns in 1982 as a way to curb violence. Gun ban advocates say the law has helped reduce violent crime and saved lives by reducing the number of pistols in the city. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who publicly ridiculed the Supreme Court for overturning Washington’s handgun law in 2008, has said reasonable and commonsense gun laws protect people. Cities and states should be able to decide on local gun laws to protect their residents, he said.
McDonald says that law put people who live in dangerous parts of town at a disadvantage. Daley—or any other politician backing the handgun ban—has no idea what it’s like to live unarmed on a block where people are packing pistols and willing to shoot, he says.
‘‘I wish I could get Mayor Daley to feel what I feel and see what I see,’’ McDonald says. ‘‘Maybe he could come here and spend the night, especially during the summer, and listen to what I listen to out my window … and maybe he would understand where I’m coming from.’’
Having a pistol next to his bed, McDonald says, would eliminate the advantage thugs have had over him for too long. That’s why he made a quixotic attempt to register his .22-caliber pistol with Chicago police, a strategic move that got the Second Amendment lawsuit rolling.
Some legal experts have predicted the Supreme Court ruling on McDonald v. Chicago, expected this summer, will overturn Chicago’s handgun ban and set a precedent that will abolish similar laws in states and cities nationwide.
While he waits for the decision, McDonald says he feels suffocated by waves of requests for interviews and pictures from news outlets. “I never anticipated this kind of recognition,” he says. “That wasn’t what I signed up for.”
Still, he says, he doesn’t regret getting involved in the legal battle. His mother taught him to be a man of his convictions.
McDonald grew up outside Fort Necessity, La., one of 12 kids born to his sharecropping parents. By the time he was 7 years old, he would go out hunting by himself and bag squirrels and rabbits for supper. When he was 17, McDonald’s mother paid a stranger all the money stashed in the cookie jar to drive her boy to Chicago so he might find a better life.
What McDonald encountered was a load of other dead-end, low-paying jobs. So, he joined the Army, spent three years as an artillery officer, returned to Chicago and still couldn’t get steady work. Ultimately, he was hired as a janitor at the University of Chicago.
McDonald caused a stink on campus when he applied for a building engineer job, a position African Americans just didn’t get in the early ’60s. After being passed over several times, he was hired as an apprentice, and eventually became a journeyman, lead engineer and later union boss. McDonald retired after 32 years and has helped many African American coworkers get better jobs along the way.
Those life experiences, and his faith in God, prepared him for his place in history as the inner-city grandpa who fought for the right to pack a pistol in Chicago.
“I felt the Lord put me here for this,” he says. “It was divine design.”
Mark Konkol is a writer in Chicago.
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