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MILLER: Veterans in the District’s cross hairs

D.C. makes no allowance for servicemen, despite their expertise with firearms

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2012

Washington's Metropolitan Police Department is using the city's pointless firearm registration mandate to harass, arrest and jail servicemen.

Two years ago, Army 1st Sgt. Matthew Corrigan was awoken in the middle of the night, forced out of his home and arrested. The Iraq veteran had his home ransacked, his guns seized and he was thrown in jail - where he was lost in the prison system for two weeks - all because the District refuses to recognize the meaning of the Second Amendment. After a failed attempt to cover up this warrantless search, the city last month dropped all charges against Sgt. Corrigan. Nonetheless, the damage done to the reservist cannot be so easily erased.

At 4 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2010, Sgt. Corrigan was asleep in his rented apartment on North Capitol Street in the Stronghold neighborhood when he heard his name being called on a bullhorn from outside. There was a heavy snow falling - the first storm of what became known that winter as "Snowmageddon."

Flood lights glared through the front and back windows and doors of his English basement apartment. "Matt Corrigan, we're here to help you, Matt," the voice said in the darkness.

He turned on his cellphone, and a police detective immediately phoned and said, "Matt, don't you think this is a good time to walk your dog?" The SWAT team outside could see the 11-year-old pit bull, Matrix, a rescue from dog fighting, who had been with Sgt. Corrigan since graduate school in Northern California.

"I'll come to the window and show myself," he offered. Sgt. Corrigan still had no idea why his house was surrounded, but he knew exactly what he should do in such situations. "I've been on the other end of that rifle trying to get someone out," he told me.

In 2005, Sgt. Corrigan, an Army reservist in a drill sergeant unit based in Alexandria and a statistician at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteered to serve in Iraq. He and nine other soldiers to embedded themselves with the Iraqi army to train them to be a functional military force. Among other duties, the sergeant would go out on patrol in Fallujah with the Iraqis and clear routes of improvised explosive devices. He was awarded the bronze star.

His 12 months of service ended without much time to re-adjust to civilian life. "In 20 days, I went from being shot at to sitting in a cube wearing a suit," he recalled of the difficult transition returning to his statistician job. "Your body is in America. Your head is in Iraq." He says that in his daily life now, he's still looking for the "IED triggerman."

Sgt. Corrigan never fully recovered emotionally from combat and still has nightmares. "I kept seeing my own dead body with my friends and family standing over me, looking disappointed. Sometimes I died in Iraq, sometimes here," he recalled. "I didn't sleep for four or five nights in a row." The Veterans Affairs hospital gave him medication to help him sleep.

He was tasked with preparing a mental health manual for his soldiers on mild traumatic brain injury and suicide prevention. He called the counseling number on the VA's Veterans Crisis Line website, which turned out to be a suicide hotline. A little before midnight, he asked to speak to someone about the bad dreams and sleeplessness. The woman asked for his name, address, phone number, whether he was active duty, if he was using alcohol or drugs, and his unit. Then she asked if he had any firearms.

Sgt. Corrigan had three personal guns for protection in his home. He had recently moved from Virginia to the District, but he had not registered them because he thought the process was too convoluted and risky. "It didn't sound right that I could just carry my guns to the police station and not get arrested," he said. The only places in the United States that require citizens to register every single gun they own with the government are Hawaii, New York City, Chicago and the District.

Sgt. Corrigan answered the VA hospital counselor truthfully, but she would not listen. "I told her, 'I don't have the gun out.' And she kept saying, 'Put down the gun.' She talked like I had the gun in one hand and my cellphone in the other.

"She insisted I repeat the words, 'The guns are down,' " he said. "I finally got agitated and said, 'I shouldn't have called' and hung up." Then Sgt. Corrigan took a prescribed sleeping pill and went to bed.

After being jolted awake four hours later, Sgt. Corrigan agreed to exit his home to show he was fine. As he walked out his front door, he turned the lock on the knob so that it would lock when he closed it.

He saw about 25 officers in full body armor and Kevlar helmets, carrying M4 assault weapons. SWAT and explosive ordinance disposal teams were on all sides. Streets were barricaded for blocks. The veteran knew how to surrender with the least chance of being hurt. He put his hands over his head and spun around so they could clearly see he was unarmed. "I looked down and saw 10 jiggly red dots all over my chest," he said, appearing afraid at the memory. "I crumbled."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an officer ready to tackle him, so he dropped to his knees and crossed his ankles to demonstrate complete defenselessness.

"They immediately zip-tied me tighter than I would have been allowed to zip-tie an Iraqi," Sgt. Corrigan said, pulling up his dress shirt cuff to show his wrist. "We had to check to fit two fingers between the tie and the Iraqi's wrist so we weren't cutting off circulation. They tied mine so tight that they hurt."

Richard Gardiner, Sgt. Corrigan's attorney, still questions whether this initial arrest was legal, since at this point the only thing the police had was the word of a VA operator saying he claimed to be a gun owner. They had no warrant. Police spokesman Gwendolyn Crump would not comment on the case.

On Wednesday, the next part in the series will explain how the police SWAT team searched the veteran's home without a warrant - all because he was exercising a right that is supposed to be protected under the Constitution.

(This is a four-part series. Click here to read part 2.)

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times. Her series on the District's gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.

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