WASHINGTON – One year after the Washington-area sniper shootings killed her son, a solemn Sonia Wills came to Capitol Hill to talk about Conrad Johnson’s life and death and to urge lawmakers not to let it happen again.
“I’m here today because I’m outraged,” said Wills, who called on Congress to renew the Federal Assault Weapons ban before it expires next year. “We have to stand here today to convince elected officials that renewing and strengthening the ban on military-style assault weapons, like the one used to kill my son, is a good idea.”
Wills occasionally dabbed at her eyes, but was otherwise composed Wednesday on the Hill where she was flanked by several legislators, including Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington.
“We need to do what we as people owe to the families of the victims,” Van Hollen said. That includes re-enacting and strengthening the assault weapons ban to close loopholes in the current law, he said.
The National Rifle Association said in a prepared statement that it sympathizes with the sniper attack victims and their families, and it accused lawmakers of exploiting the families’ pain for their own purposes.
“In recent years, gun-ban groups have embarked on a campaign of exploiting tragic events in an attempt to restore their political relevance. Once again, today, they politicized a dreadful crime spree that terrified all of us one year ago,” NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said in a written statement.
Cox’s statement did not address the merits of the assault-weapons bill, but literature on the NRA Web site said the proposals currently before Congress would not just renew the law, but expand it to “ban millions more guns.” It said such guns are rarely used in crimes, but that the ban would include guns used for defense and for target shooting.
But Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, a lead sponsor of the House version of the bill, urged citizens to contact their elected officials to counter the lobbying of the NRA.
“You’ll hear the NRA say, well, it won’t make a difference,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “Well, you tell that to the family.”
Maryland lawmakers are also pushing for state legislation that would ban military-style weapons in the state, including “copycats,” such as the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used in last year’s sniper attacks.
The lawmakers are pushing for statewide legislation in case the current federal ban is not renewed and is allowed to expire in September 2004. The state proposals would also extend the existing ban on assault pistols in Maryland.
Conrad Johnson, a driver for Montgomery County’s Ride-On bus system, was one of 10 people killed and three wounded during last October’s sniper attacks. Johnson was shot on Oct. 22 while standing on the top of the steps of his bus, ready to begin a new day at work.
“When everyone else was paralyzed, (Johnson) went as a bus driver and helped the passengers walk onto the bus, because they were scared to walk alone,” Van Hollen said. “And he became the victim.”
Johnson was the last victim of the shootings. Police arrested two suspects two days later.
“Conrad was a devoted family member,” Wills said. “He believed life should be enjoyed, not lived in fear.”