Otis McDonald: "The public face of gun rights"

Recently, the Chicago Tribune published a story profiling Otis McDonald, a 76 year-old African American, Democrat and hunter whose name is featured on the gun rights case McDonald v. City of Chicago that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court later this year.

From the story:

From behind the wheel of his hulking GMC Suburban, 76-year-old Otis McDonald leads a crime-themed tour of his Morgan Park neighborhood. Otis McDonald

Photo by Scott Strazzante,
Chicago Tribune / January 13, 2010

He points to the yellow brick bungalow he says is a haven for drug dealers. Down the street is the alley where five years ago he saw a teenager pull out a gun and take aim at a passing car.

Around the corner, he gestures to the weed-bitten roadside where three thugs once threatened his life.

"I know every day that I come out in the streets, the youngsters will shoot me as quick as they will a policeman," says McDonald, a trim man with a neat mustache and closely cropped gray hair. "They'll shoot a policeman as quick as they will any of their young gangbangers."

To defend himself, McDonald says, he needs a handgun. So, in April of 2008, the retired maintenance engineer agreed to serve as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Chicago's 28-year-old handgun ban. Soon after, he walked into the Chicago Police Department and, as his attorneys had directed, applied for a .22-caliber Beretta pistol, setting the lawsuit into motion. When that case is argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, McDonald will become the public face of one of the most important Second Amendment cases in the nation's history.

"Regardless of how this case goes, Mr. McDonald's name is set in legal history, at the same level as Roe v. Wade and Plessy v. Ferguson," Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University, is quoted as saying. "Schoolkids are going to recognize that in this case, something dramatic happened."

Again, from the story:

The son of Louisiana sharecroppers, he was 17 years old when he borrowed $18 from his mother and set off for Chicago in 1951, becoming one of millions of African-Americans who moved North during the Great Migration. McDonald settled in the city's Morgan Park neighborhood, had eight children and spent his career working at the University of Chicago, where he started as a janitor, worked his way up to become a maintenance engineer, and retired in 1997.

He became interested in gun rights about 2005, when Mayor Richard Daley was pushing a statewide ban on assault weapons. Concerned that his shotgun might be outlawed under the proposed ban, McDonald attended several gun-rights rallies in Springfield, where he says he was one of the few people from Chicago and, he notes with a laugh, probably the only black person.

At the rallies, he caught the eye of a Valinda Rowe, a gun-rights activist who works for IllinoisCarry.com, a group that favors the legalization of concealed and open carrying of weapons. When Rowe heard that [Alan Gura, the Virginia-based attorney who successfully argued the Heller case,] was looking for Chicago plaintiffs, she passed along McDonald's phone number.

In April, Gura flew to Chicago to meet with the four potential plaintiffs. Sitting around a long conference table at a Schiller Park law office borrowed for the occasion, the group talked about the case and exchanged their personal stories. Toward the end of the meeting, Gura suggested that McDonald become the lead plaintiff, a move that would mean the case would be named McDonald v. City of Chicago.

"Why would you name it after me?" McDonald remembers asking. "Is it just because I'm the only black?"

He meant the question as a joke. Nevertheless, McDonald had identified an important issue. Gun ownership is most common among middle-age, middle-class, white men who live in suburban or rural areas, according to a 2008 survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

But gun-rights advocates want to frame the issue more broadly. In preparation for the Heller case, attorneys interviewed two to three dozen people, looking for diversity in terms of race, sex, age and income.

"We wanted to be able to present the best face not just to the court but also to the media," said Robert A. Levy, a lawyer who plotted strategy in the Heller case and who is now the chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute. Plaintiffs had to have a clean criminal background and a plausible reason to want a firearm for self-defense, Levy said.

The story goes on to say the strategy was partly inspired by the civil rights-era work of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, who challenged racial segregation in the 1940s and 1950s by searching for compelling plaintiffs and using the press to build public sympathy and support.

The NAACP's approach became the template for other reform movements, such as women's rights in the 1970s, and was taken up by a spectrum of activists, including conservative groups that have used it to challenge affirmative action, with moderate success.

In the Chicago case, constitutional law experts say McDonald likely was chosen for another important reason. Arguments in the case center on the 14th Amendment, which says that a state may not "abridge the privileges or immunities" of citizens.

The amendment was adopted after the Civil War to protect former slaves in states that were passing laws restricting their rights and prohibiting them from owning guns. In the Heller decision, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, referred to that chapter in history, arguing that those who had opposed the disarmament of freedmen did so with the understanding that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to own a gun for self-defense.

That interpretation is central to the plaintiffs' arguments in the Chicago case.

Like the freed slaves, McDonald is a black person who, the thinking goes, has been disarmed. Having an African-American plaintiff challenge the Chicago handgun ban does not technically bolster the legal argument, says Adam Samaha, a law professor at the University of Chicago, but could provide a resonant symbol "because it helps us remember that history."

At issue in McDonald v. Chicago is "incorporating" the Second Amendment against the states. To date, the Second Amendment has been applied only to the federal government and not to individual states. This has made it possible for states and cities to pass restrictive gun laws without regard for individual Constitutional rights. If the court rules in favor of incorporation, citizens will be able to challenge state gun control laws which violate the Second Amendment.

Buckeye Firearms Foundation (BFF) has teamed up with the United States Concealed Carry Association (USCCA) to file a "friend of the court" brief in the McDonald v. Chicago United States Supreme Court case on gun rights.

Click here to download the brief as a pdf.

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