Gun Fighter

UPDATED 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

Conrad Johnson's clothes still hang in a bedroom closet. Until recently his name was on the family's answering machine. "I still wait for him to come home," says his wife, Denise, "to hear his key." She may not be ready to let go of her husband, but the mother of two has found the strength to fight in his memory. In January, three months after the 35-year-old Maryland bus driver died in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks, she filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the rifle used to kill Conrad, and the Tacoma, Wash., gun store that carried it.

When the House of Representatives passed a bill last month banning virtually all civil suits against the gun industry—hers likely among them—Johnson took her case to Capitol Hill. Battling the powerful National Rifle Association, she has met with senators and held press conferences, sharing her painful story to ensure that the bill doesn't turn into law. "How can [politicians] look me in the eye and tell me this dealer and manufacturer can keep doing business," asks Johnson, 34, a staff relations manager for a Washington law firm, "and my right is going to be taken away?"

The bill would protect the gun industry from product liability in all but the rarest cases of egregious negligence—say, if a gun dealer sells a 9-mm pistol to a buyer who has announced that he plans to shoot someone and he does. Supporters say the legislation—which has enough backing to pass the Senate any day now—is needed to stop frivolous lawsuits that tie up the courts and waste taxpayers' money. "Sometimes the lawyers go after the deepest pockets, disregarding that the person got the gun illegally, maybe stole it, and used it illegally," says Rep. Cliff Stearns, 62, the Florida Republican who introduced the bill. "Firearms are inanimate objects," adds NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "Let's focus on the criminal."

In the sniper case, authorities believe, that would be John Allen Muhammad, 42, and John Lee Malvo, 18. The pair allegedly shoplifted the murder weapon, a Bushmaster rifle, from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply. But the dealer hadn't reported the rifle—nor apparently at least 237 other lost guns—as missing. "Where are they? Whose hands are they in?" asks Vicki Snider, 42, who lost her 39-year-old brother James "Sonny" Buchanan in the sniper shootings and has joined Johnson's suit. "It's very sad the NRA has that much power." Adds New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, 79, leader of Senate opposition to the bill: "There are regulations for teddy bears and toy guns—this society should not be intimidated into supporting immunity for this one industry. Where is the justice?"

Johnson has been asking the same question since Oct. 22 of last year, when she turned on the TV news at 6:30 a.m. and saw a Montgomery County Transit bus surrounded by police cars. "I kept calling Conrad on his cell phone, and he wasn't answering," she recalls. Standing on the top step of his bus before setting off on his morning route, he'd been shot; the bullet, says Johnson, had exploded in his liver. Conrad went into surgery, but doctors couldn't stop the bleeding: "I kept saying, 'Not him, not him'—I just didn't want to believe it," says Johnson. "I remember," says her mother, Henrietta Young, 55, "the sense of total loss on her face."

The pair had been together for 16 years, ever since Conrad moved into the Fort Washington, Md., neighborhood where Denise grew up, the middle of three children. It took him a month to get a date and another eight years to get to the altar. "I didn't find him attractive, but he did have some sexy legs," says Johnson, the daughter of a biochemist and a legal secretary. "He just charmed me over." Johnson slips between past and present tense as she speaks of him: "He's a gentleman," she says. "He really was a doll." Even after their 1994 wedding, Conrad regularly surprised her with flowers, dinner dates and concert tickets. Once he wrote on her mirror with lipstick, "Sweetheart, I will forever love you. Keep a smile on your face."

That has become excruciatingly difficult, as Johnson grapples with grief, loneliness and the burden of being both mother and father to sons Dante, 15, and DeVohn, 7. Talking to senators and reliving her loss has been traumatic but also "therapeutic," she says. "I don't want anyone else to go through the agony we're going through. If I can prevent that, that's what I'm going to do."

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