As an 80-year-old Army veteran, his wife and great-grandson slept in their Humboldt Park home just before dawn Wednesday, a would-be burglar busted a basement window, crawled over discarded bikes and paint buckets, and made his way up winding stairs to an enclosed porch.
The intruder -- who police said wore stockings over his hands to keep from leaving prints -- wiggled the brass doorknob of the locked door that led to the first-floor apartment, but it didn't open, the family said. He then turned to the oversized glass window of the 80-year-old's bedroom, pulled out his gun and shot, police and family said.
But just as the man got off a second round, the homeowner, who had a handgun of his own, fired a single shot, killing the intruder, a police source said.
"He missed, (but) my daddy didn't," said the 80-year-old's son, Butch Gant, who lives upstairs in the two-flat in the 600 block of North Sawyer Avenue.
The shooting comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on Chicago's decades-old ban on possessing handguns. During oral arguments in March, the court's majority appeared almost certain to strike down the city ordinance and rule that residents have a right to a handgun at home.
Chicago police have long aggressively been trying to remove guns from the public, saying they are the principal weapons used in murders and employed by gangs to enforce turf through violence.
Handguns account for only one-third of all firearms owned in the United States but more than two-thirds of all firearm-related deaths each year, according to the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. A gun in a home is four times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, the council said.
But many in Chicago echoed the feelings of the victim's family that if he hadn't been armed, the frightening encounter could have ended in their deaths.
"He saved our lives," said the man's wife, 83, who had been asleep with her husband when the noise of shattered glass startled the family from its sleep about 5:20 a.m.
Police let the Korean War veteran, who walks with the aid of a cane, go without filing immediate charges because he appeared to act in self-defense, according to police sources.
The homeowner bought his handgun after being robbed just six months ago, having vowed not to be a victim again, his family said.
In an interview at the home, the wife said her first thoughts were of her 12-year-old great-grandson asleep in the next room. She rushed to wake him up and led him to the front living room, away from the gunfire.
"The only thing I could think is 'God, please save my husband, myself and my grandbaby,'" she said.
The wife's hands continued to tremble hours after the shooting.
"I was scared to death," she said. "You're in your bed asleep, and somebody shoots a gun in your home. I'm still shook up."
Neighbors and family heralded the actions of the homeowner.
"He just protected his family," Gant, 57, said. "That's the most important thing to do, protect your family."
The intruder was later identified by his family as Anthony Nelson, 29, who was on parole since December following a three-year prison sentence for a drug conviction, according to county and state records.
He was pronounced dead at the scene, his blood splattered just feet away from the couple's bedroom window.
anthony_nelson_150.jpgNelson (see prison photo at right) had a 13-page rap sheet that includes a number of drug and weapons convictions dating to 1998, according to police and court records. He lived less than a mile from the home he broke into. Neighbors recognized him from his mug shot as a man they had seen at the corner liquor store who went by the name "Big Ant."
"I just don't want to believe it's true," said his mother, Lenora Nelson, who said her son earned his GED while in custody and had just signed up for an online carpentry program. "He could fix almost anything," she said. Nelson was supposed to begin a job next week for a company that cleans out homes before they're remodeled, she said.
The last time she saw her son was Tuesday night, when they had his favorite meal -- steak burritos -- for dinner, she said. When he left around 9 p.m., he didn't tell her where he was going, she said.
Since being freed on parole, Nelson began working with an organization that helps former inmates find jobs once they're released from prison, his mother said.
Police declined to identify the 80-year-old shooter, saying he was a victim of a crime and it was against department policy to name him.
The homeowner met his wife while working as a presser at a dry cleaners. His wife, a retired nurse, also worked as a monitor on a bus for disabled children. Next month they will celebrate their 60th anniversary. The couple have lived in the same house for more than 40 years, but the wife is thinking about moving.
"How much can you take?" she said.
In the West Side neighborhood where the home invasion occurred, longtime homeowners have created a relatively stable community on their street -- an oasis from shootings. Neighbors said their stretch of North Sawyer Avenue had been a good place for families to raise their children a generation ago, but as the aging population dies, new residents move in and a heightened sense of danger grows.
Some residents choose different forms of protection. Audrey Williams, 75, said she keeps five dogs on her property to guard her home, but "this is the first time that we've had an incident like this, on this street, and I've lived here for 43 years," she said.
"They did the right thing. If anyone tried to come in on me, I'd do the same thing," said Williams, who has described the family as "sweet people who don't bother anyone."
One neighbor used to help the couple carry in groceries because they both walk with canes.
"Everyone around here looks around for each other and watches each other's homes," said Jose Perez, who has lived in the area about five years.
Throughout the day Wednesday, a family friend worked to board up the two broken windows. The son said the shooting demonstrates why Chicago's handgun must be repealed.
"How are we going to protect our homes without guns?" the son said. "That gun law should be abolished. You don't need guns on the street, but you need them in the home for protection."