When Colleen Lawson tried to purchase a handgun, a 1982 Chicago ban stopped her. Five years later, Lawson helped overturn the ordinance and continues her call for gun rights. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

For many Chicago residents, gun control is a personal issue. Gun violence, or the threat of it, pervades everyday life. As the debate over how to curb gun violence takes center stage at the national level and the Illinois statehouse, Chicago finds itself at the center of attention. The city has become a leading example of gun violence in urban America and the testing ground for expansive gun-control proposals. The Chicago Reporter sat down with two activists on opposite sides of the issue. While their opinions differ sharply, the inspiration for their views is rooted in the same place—the safety of their children.

Colleen Lawson is not your typical gun-rights activist. Over a cup of tea in her Jefferson Park home, she explains that, among other things, she helps at-risk youth in Chicago “hear their own voice again” amid the cacophony of voices pressuring them on the streets. She speaks in soft tones well-suited for her job as a hypnotherapist. But Lawson, 54, is also a firearm safety instructor and an outspoken advocate of the Second Amendment in a city known for strict limits on firearm possession. She had little interest in the issue for most of her life, but it found her in 2007 when three men tried to break into her house while she was at home sick with the flu.

They had just cracked the sliding door open, saw Lawson approaching from inside and fled. Feeling vulnerable, Lawson attempted to purchase a weapon for protection, only to discover that a 1982 ban on handgun ownership in Chicago prevented her from doing so.

“Someone told me that, ‘No, I couldn’t have something that would allow me to defend myself,’” she said. “That’s what got me.” Lawson’s husband, David, got in touch with Alan Gura, the lead prosecutor in District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned a similar ban in Washington, D.C.

Two years later, the Lawsons, along with co-plaintiffs Otis McDonald and Adam Orlov, found themselves before the  Supreme Court. The ensuing McDonald v. Chicago ruling in 2010 would change the nature of the gun-control debate. It overturned Chicago’s extraordinary ordinance and affirmed the right of every eligible person in America to keep a firearm in the home for self-defense.

Recently, Lawson sat down with The Chicago Reporter to discuss the current  debate and the personal inspiration behind her activism.

Are you concerned about the gun-control debate on a national level or do you just focus on Chicago?

I’m still focusing here in Chicago because I want to be here until everybody has their right and ability returned to them, until the citizens of the city are educated that it is a civil right, and that it’s not unusual to have a firearm in your home. Our case, McDonald v. Chicago, brought handgun ownership not back to Chicago but to every home across the nation. And that gives me huge peace of mind. I’m a mom; I want my kids to be able to grow up and not only have a happy, productive life, but to have [guns] along the way. There are kids in many neighborhoods here in Chicago who, for their entire lives, a whole generation in 28 years, have never once been able to walk outside their home without the fear of getting shot.

How do you respond to other mothers who are calling for more limitations?

Let’s start with the limitations. There are 22,000 gun laws [according to the National Rifle Association] on the books. How much difference does 22,001 make? Are criminals going to say, ‘Darn, that one last law—I guess I can’t do anything wrong anymore’? In the talks that have been going on with the senators and representatives coming in, Garry F. McCarthy, the superintendent of police, said that not one single [Firearm Owners Identification Card] owner’s gun was involved in crimes. Not one single gun crime has been committed by someone with a legally registered gun here. So not one of us who are law abiding citizens [has committed a crime] with a firearm. Not one. Why do we need more limitations when we’re not doing anything wrong? They ought to be putting us on the committees. They’re not talking about the violence; they’re talking about more gun laws. They’re not going into what is actually causing the violence to be inside the heart of someone. This has to be addressed. You can’t just slap a Band-Aid on it and say it’s OK.

And until that happens, people should take self- defense into their own hands?

People do that anyways. It’s not taking justice in our own hands. Firearm ownership is a huge responsibility. You have to be responsible for every single bullet that you’ve bought. You have to make sure that nobody is going to be harmed accidentally. That right [to self-defense] predates the Second Amendment. It says ‘shall not be infringed,’ not ‘shall be instituted.’ That right is there so that the government can’t trample over the people.

As far as the mothers, even after we won the right to have firearms in the home, every one of my kids was held up at gunpoint in this area—and we picked this area on purpose. Everyone has been held up multiple times on the street. And when you’re holding someone in your arms and they’re crying and their face is all scuffed up from being smashed into the pavement, you’ve got to think that even if there wasn’t anyone there with a concealed carry permit, trained to be able to take care of the area, wouldn’t it have been nice if my kid could’ve at least felt some hope that maybe there could have been?

Are there any further restrictions that you would support in terms of background checks?

We already have background checks in Illinois. We’ve already passed that. The whole background check with holes in it—that’s a digression. As the superintendent of police already said, nobody with a [Firearm Owners Identification Card] has committed a firearm crime. They’re just not doing it. So let’s work on the criminals. Let’s do something with them instead of just sending them to prison to get angrier. Let’s get into the heart and begin to erase the violence. Or put some of us on a committee so you understand at least what kind of laws you’re making. In drafting the laws, we’ve been listening to some of the committee meetings, and they talk about, ‘Who will protect us?’ The whole thing is about protection—yourself, your family, your neighborhood. It’s about making it so that we’re no longer the only state in the country where the criminal is guaranteed a legally disarmed victim on the street. And that’s really sad. I’d hate to be a child growing up here thinking I was completely at somebody’s mercy.

You grew up in Hyde Park and you still have family living in Englewood and elsewhere on the South Side. Have you talked to them about gun rights?

What most of my South Side friends say is, ‘We all have them. We just don’t talk about it.’ In order to simply survive, being able to live day-to-day, they need them. Here, I want to have [a gun] in case I need it. There, they need to have them to discourage someone from simply taking what they want when they want. You don’t see my relatives in prison for firing a handgun. Not arrested, not convicted, not rumored about. That shows that there are people who know how to responsibly own firearms.

is a former intern at The Chicago Reporter.