Crime victim's fightback strikes chord in US psyche

LOCAL HEROES No 24: Dorothy Newton
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Two years before, Dorothy Newton had been shot in the same city, by a teenage hoodlum who pulled a gun as she returned home with her godson. Both were hit in the neck. She recovered from her wound but the boy was left paralysed.

Then, on the evening of last 30 May it happened again. Returning to her new flat on the south side of Richmond, Ms Newton was ambushed by another gunman. The difference was that in 1996, she happened to be carrying a gun, and she used it.

And so in a city weary of crime, Ms Newton has turned into a classic American hero: the peaceful citizen who never caused trouble, but whose patience snaps at one outrage too many and who takes the law into her own hands on behalf of all right-minded citizens. Unwittingly and unwillingly, she has become a protagonist in the unending argument over guns.

The news picture of the week from Richmond was a symbol of racial harmony that not long ago would have been unthinkable. A statue of the late tennis player Arthur Ashe was unveiled on Monument Avenue, the Champs-Elysees of the old Confederacy, alongside Generals Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others of its greatest sons. The reality of Richmond, however, is another: a medium-sized city afflicted by a Washington-style crime rate. Virginia is a state whose idea of gun control is to limit purchases of handguns to one per person per month.

That May evening, Ms Newton happened to have in her handbag a gun she had arranged to give to its owner, a police officer whom she was to meet later. As she reached her doorstep, she was accosted by two youths, joined a few moments later by two others. She gave them first a cigarette case with $20 inside, then jewellery and necklaces. But they wanted more.

Rummaging in her bag, she found the .38 revolver and fired at her attackers. Two were wounded, taken into custody, and sent for trial; the other two fled. "I'm happy those boys survived ... I never wanted to shoot anybody," she said. "But I'm just tired of being afraid."

Superficially there are similarities with the case of Bernard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four black men who asked him for money on a New York train. But Goetz was white, she is black, and the case lacks racial overtones. Nor did Ms Newton act with the calculating coldness which earlier this year put Goetz at the wrong end of a multi-million dollar judgment in a suit brought by one of those he shot and paralysed.

Technically, Ms Newton did not have the right to carry the gun, but a grand jury last month declined to bring charges. "We don't encourage people to do this," a police spokesman said. "But the law says you have the right to defend yourself."

The 41-year-old heroine is less elated than frightened, and has gone into hiding. But the issues she raised have not. The Richmond Times Dispatch editorialised: "The next time certain gun control groups start babbling about how possessing a gun makes a person less safe, perhaps they will have the decency to say that to Dorothy Newton's face ... If she hadn't been armed, she would be poorer, perhaps maimed - maybe even dead."