Otis McDonald, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court decision that forced Chicago to abandon its 28-year ban on handguns, has died at 80, a family spokesman said Sunday.
Fred Jones said his uncle died on Friday while in hospice care after a long battle with cancer.
Mr. McDonald, an unassuming retired maintenance engineer, became a hero to the pro-gun movement, in large part because of his life story and the simple but eloquent way he expressed his desire to have a handgun to protect himself and his family from the gun-toting drug dealers who set up shop just outside his front door and the burglars who broke into his Morgan Park home.
Describing himself as a liberal, South Side Democrat in a 2010 interview with the Sun-Times, Mr. McDonald insisted that as the face of the lawsuit, he was not a “showpiece” for the pro-gun lobby.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone’s motives were for picking me for this,” Mr. McDonald said. “I have my own motives, and they are so compelling and so heavy that to me this is worthy of my effort.”
Mr. McDonald said that his once-quiet neighborhood deteriorated, and from inside his house he could hear the sound of gunfire and shattering liquor bottles and look out his window to the sight of drunken fights and busy drug dealers. He said he came home at least three times to a burglarized house.
Mr. McDonald told the Sun-Times that part of his motivation for challenging the city’s handgun ban came in 2008, when three males blocked his car as he headed to Jewel.
“They did all this cussing … saying, ‘I’ll put you down, you old gray-haired mothers-and-such; I’ll put you down.’ And they’re grabbing at their side, running up to the truck door, and I’m sitting there defenseless,” Mr. McDonald told the Sun-Times. “That’s the things that was on my mind when I made the decision to go with this lawsuit.”
Mr. McDonald, one of 12 children of sharecropper parents, grew up near Fort Necessity, La., which he said was just “two stores and a cotton gin.”
At 17, his mother emptied her savings from the cookie jar — $18 — and paid a stranger to drive her son to Chicago to make a better life.
He filleted fish at State Fishery on 35th and State, and joined the Army.
Back in Chicago, he found steady work as a janitor at the University of Chicago in the early ’60s.
Mr. McDonald applied to be a campus building engineer apprentice when African Americans rarely got those opportunities. After “running into many brick walls,” he said, he got the apprenticeship, became a journeyman and was promoted to lead engineer. He said he stayed at the university determined to “change the status quo” there. “There were a lot of black guys there who didn’t have the guts I have,” Mr. McDonald said. “If I didn’t stay, they might continue to work as a janitor and be afraid to bid on jobs that are available to them.”
He retired after 32 years.
Another of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the court’s 2010 decision, Adam Orlov, said that while he does not know how important having Mr. McDonald as the lead plaintiff was from a “legal standpoint . . . he was very important from a human angle, a very compelling likable person with a very real, very common American story to tell — a veteran, a family man, who is dealing with very real issues of urban decay and crime and trying to raise his family.”
After the court decision, Mr. McDonald remained active in the gun rights movement in Illinois, speaking out in favor, for example, of the state allowing people to carry concealed weapons in public before such a law was passed last year after a federal court ruling forced the state to enact concealed carry legislation. Illinois was the last of the 50 states to allow concealed carry.
“We could not have gotten the kind of (state) carry law we got without McDonald versus Chicago,” said Valinda Rowe, a spokeswoman for IllinoisCarry, which favors concealed carry. “That case was pivotal.”
Jones said Mr. McDonald is survived by his wife, Laura, and four grown children. He said funeral arrangements are pending.
Whether battling for a better career or leading a landmark lawsuit, Mr. McDonald told the Sun-Times in 2010 that he didn’t flinch.
“I was not going to back down from a situation because of fear,” he said. “You see, I’m not built like that. I don’t have that thing called fear, I don’t guess.”