CHICAGO - For a few blessed hours on a recent Saturday, Emma Ellis tilted her softly wrinkled face to the sun and ignored the drug dealers skulking in the shadows.
She breathed in the smell of barbecued rib tips and listened to the heart-melting melody of Marvin Gaye crooning "Mercy, Mercy Me." A few yards away, pigtails flying and dusty bare feet kicking, children shrieked and swung from a jungle gym.
Just two months earlier, Ellis said, she was a prisoner in her own apartment at the Stateway Gardens public-housing complex. She would leave only to go to the store or to church - where she "prayed for the shooting to stop."
"You don't know what it's like to lose your freedom," said Ellis, 64, her slight shoulders trembling at the thought. "It's a terrible thing."
Ellis and other tenants of buildings 3547 and 3549 who ventured outside earlier last month credited the Chicago Housing Authority - and its enforcement of a lease provision that bans tenants from owning firearms - with freeing them.
But in a standoff that is being closely watched by public-housing authorities across the country, the National Rifle Association has challenged the Chicago Housing Authority's policy, contending that it violates the constitutional right of tenants to bear arms. So far, the two groups have stated their positions only in letters, but both have vowed to go to court if necessary.
"We view this as the gun-control issue in microcosm," said
Richard E. Gardiner, director of state and local government relations for the powerful gun lobby.
"Those who support gun control want to punish people who are not the problem," Gardiner said. "What we want to know is why the Housing Authority is not focusing on the criminals who are the problem, choosing instead to threaten law-abiding citizens with eviction."
Chicago Housing Authority Chairman Vincent Lane agreed that the majority of the authority's estimated 160,000 legal tenants are "decent, responsible citizens." But he said the law, which bans registered weapons as well as illegal ones, is targeted at the handful who allow their apartments to be used as weapons caches for drug dealers and gang members.
"I've never met a tenant who has wanted a gun in his or her apartment," Lane said. "They have watched as their relatives and friends have been taken from this world by guns, and they'd rather take their chances and let the CHA and the city police provide safety for them."
Lane says the rule, in existence for 20 years but enforced only for the past two as part of a broader anti-crime program, has led to the confiscation of hundreds of weapons, including assault-style rifles and machine guns.
Housing authorities nationwide are awaiting the outcome of the showdown.
"I think most public-housing authorities . . . would like to do something to limit the possibility of firearms," said Mary Ann Russ, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a nonprofit agency whose 56 members administer 40 percent of the public-housing units nationally.
Housing authorities "are hoping Chicago will prevail and the NRA will not, so they can feel more confident about adopting an all-out ban on guns," she added.
Russ said housing authorities in Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta and New Haven, Conn., were among those considering such bans. Recently, New York Mayor David Dinkins announced that the city would evict public-housing tenants who own illegal guns.
The NRA position has prevailed in two cities.
A ban on guns in the public housing of Portland, Ore., was ruled unconstitutional by the state attorney general in 1988, and a similar ban in Richmond, Va., was upheld by a federal judge but reversed earlier this year when the Legislature prohibited housing authorities from imposing such restrictions.
As a boy growing up in a run-down cold-water flat on Chicago's South Side, Vincent Lane gazed with envy at the new Housing Authority apartments with playgrounds across the street.
In 1988, when he became chairman and executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority, which had gained a reputation for incompetence and corruption, his mission was to restore the city's public housing to what he says it had once been - "the most desirable housing in black communities."
"We must go back in order to go forward," said Lane, who gave up a career as a successful real-estate developer to head the CHA. "We must get rid of this war-zone mentality where law-abiding residents are constantly under siege."
In 1988, Lane launched "Operation Clean Sweep," a hard-hitting anti-crime program. In the unannounced midmorning raids, when children are at school and drug dealers are asleep, about 50 Housing Authority security officers and managers descend on an apartment building.
After the American Civil Liberties Union protested that the sweeps violated tenants' rights against illegal searches, guards were instructed to just glance about each apartment for drugs, guns and illegal squatters, whom officials say number more than 50,000. City police officers stand watch outside and later may use information from the tenants and the Housing Authority guards to follow up at some apartments with search warrants.
So far, the sweeps have resulted in the eviction of about 500 tenants. Twenty-five Chicago Housing Authority high-rises have already been "swept." Lane said that 40 others will be by the end of the year and that all Chicago Housing Authority buildings will have been swept in three years. Chicago police report a 32 percent drop in crime in the housing complexes where buildings have been swept.