Gun control debate hits close to home for lawmaker

March 28, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- The state's latest swipe at the gun traffickers was on its way to law yesterday, but Del. Elijah Cummings had his mind slightly elsewhere. He remembered a night on Madison Avenue, in Baltimore, where there will always be two sawed-off shotguns pointed at his head.

Most of those pondering Maryland's new limits on gun buying have distance on their side. They argue the arithmetic of homicide without having faced it. Cummings, the Democratic nominee for the 7th Congressional District, faced death outside his office.

"When people talk about wanting to protect themselves with guns," he was saying, as the legislature voted yesterday to limit handgun purchases to one a month, "I know what they mean. As much as I hate to admit it, there are times I'm scared to lie in my own bed. I'm surrounded by drugs. I'm a legislator, an attorney. And I come home, and I'm a sitting duck. My house has been broken into four times in the last 18 months. My car's been broken into three times."

And then there was the night, August of '93, when Cummings arrived on Madison Avenue, outside his office. He'd returned that day from a vacation in South Africa. Friends had told him that South Africa would be dangerous, that there were people being killed over there, that the politics were too volatile. Instead, the trip had been peaceful and spiritually rejuvenating.

"When I got back," Cummings said, "I drove to Madison Avenue. I circled the block three or four times. I always, always do that, with my high beams on. If there's anybody out there, man or woman, I don't get out of the car."

He didn't see the two guys with sawed-off shotguns. One of them said, "Reach into your pocket. Slowly."

Cummings remembers thinking, "I'm gonna die. What a hell of a way to die." He recalled hearing police say attackers are scared. Don't give them reason to shoot. He had $40 in his pocket. He thought about his 11-year old daughter, who wouldn't have a father if he died. He thought about "all the people I might not have made peace with in my life."

Then he heard one of the gunmen say, "Get on the ground. Say your prayers. We're gonna kill you," while the other said, "Shoot him in the back."

But then he heard the sound of their footsteps as they raced off. So Cummings got off the ground and ran in the opposite direction.

And now, as the latest gun-buying restrictions moved toward passage, he was saying, "I understand the desire for guns. Deep in my heart, I believe people should be able to protect themselves. But [that's] doing more harm than good."

Part of the damage is the famous street crime, but there's also the siege mentality -- and the troubles inside people's homes.

"We're more likely to shoot somebody we know than some intruder," he said. "That's clear from all the statistics. I had a client who came home, in Anne Arundel County, and the pork and beans weren't prepared right. There was an argument. He pulled out a gun and shot. You have that access, you use it."

A balance must be maintained. The new gun control bill, awaiting Gov. Parris N. Glendening's signature, would require a criminal background check and a seven-day waiting period for people who buy handguns from private individuals, and would limit handgun purchases to one a month.

"People don't need a new gun every month," Cummings said. "You might need one gun a lifetime. So you balance. The drug addicts are out of control and might do anything. We have to keep the guns away from them because they're committing 80 percent of the crimes.

"I know people on drugs who say they need $200 or $300 a day for their habits. And they have no job. They've got to beat a person, rob him, break into houses. The women are selling their bodies."

In Washington, where Cummings is expected to replace the departed Rep. Kweisi Mfume after next month's election, he'll represent a district that is part city, part Baltimore County.

"If part of your body is sick," he said, "then all of you is sick. A headache, a toothache, I don't care, the whole body's hurting. It's the same with politics." The city's problems increasingly become those of the counties. And, in disturbing numbers, they involve young people.

"I spoke to kids at Northern High the other day, and a girl told me, 'We might have a safe day.' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'The kids who do well in class get picked on.' See, we put down excellence, and we applaud ignorance."

"You talk to the school principals about this. They'll tell you, the kids weren't treated properly in the womb. The mothers drank, they smoked. The fathers aren't there. The black community hasn't talked about this enough, but it's true. These are wounded children. They get to school, they're already behind, and so they act out."

When Cummings helped prepare a report on the plight of black males a few years back, "We talked to 1,700 kids, and they all said, 'I want to belong.' To what? To a family. So the drug dealer becomes his family. At 7, he takes the kid to the movies. He's buying sneakers for him. At 9, he asks him to just hold his drugs. At 11, he's got him selling them for him."

The patterns -- the drugs and the guns -- have to be broken, Cummings was saying now. He listened to the debate on the House floor. But a piece of him remembered Madison Avenue and the shotguns at his head, and he knew this had to stop.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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