FEAR LED Shaneen Allen to buy a handgun.
Allen, 27, of South Philly, worried she'd be robbed again, left bleeding and bruised with her shirt torn apart like that breezy July night last year in an alley off South Street. She thought of her boys, Naiare and Sincere, growing up without a mom, and she worked too hard for them and too many jobs to lose it all over some makeup, a $20 bill and a SEPTA TransPass, she said.
"I was actually scared to buy the firearm, because I didn't know anything about guns," Allen said Wednesday inside her townhouse as the boys hovered around her.
Allen obtained a license-to-carry permit and legally purchased a .380 Bersa Thunder, a gun with two safeties and a trigger lock. She even signed up for lessons at a local gun range.
But she made one mistake: She brought the gun to New Jersey. And now she has a new fear - three to five years in prison.
"It's all so hard to believe," said Allen, a phlebotomist. "I cry myself to sleep every night. Every day it's all fear."
Oct. 1, 2013, had been a long day for Allen, including a trip to an animal shelter in Philadelphia to get Sincere a dog for his birthday, then out to King of Prussia to pick up his father, Desmond Boyd. The two were heading to Atlantic City to decorate a suite at the Tropicana for Sincere's party. It was about 1 a.m., Allen said, when a New Jersey State Police trooper pulled her over for an alleged unsafe lane change.
Looking through her purse for her insurance and registration, Allen remembered that her gun was there, in a holster.
"I said, 'I just want to let you know that I have my license to carry and I have my firearm on me,' " Allen said. "He was like, 'What?' He didn't believe what I was saying."
The Garden State has some of the nation's strictest gun-control laws. Carry permits are rare, so it's not something that officers hear often during traffic stops. New Jersey doesn't recognize carry permits from any other state, either, something Allen said she didn't realize.
"I thought it was like a driver's license," she said. "I didn't know."
Allen, with no criminal history, was looking at a mandatory three-year prison term, charged with unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of hollow-point bullets. It seemed unreal that morning, she said, and she sat through the fanfare of her son's birthday party later in disbelief.
"I sucked it up, and my kids didn't know, and we still had a great party," she said.
Like Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, Allen applied for pretrial intervention in Atlantic County, a diversion program to keep defendants charged with "victimless or less serious offenses" out of the court system, the state says.
Rice, who pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault in a case involving his future wife at Revel casino in February, was accepted into the program. Allen was given a favorable recommendation by the pretrial-intervention director, but the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office rejected her application, citing a need to "deter."
To make matters worse, Allen said a miscommunication with her public defender made her miss a court date in the spring and gave her a taste of what life could be like in prison, 46 days split between the Montgomery and Atlantic county jails on a fugitive warrant and $50,000 bail.
The warrant had been discovered during another traffic stop in Montgomery County.
"I stayed at Montgomery County for 27 days before I saw a judge to get extradited, which took five minutes to do," she said, shaking her head.
There was a bright side: A prisoner heard her case and recommended that she call Evan Nappen, a New Jersey lawyer who specializes in gun cases.
"She's about to have her life destroyed," Nappen said last week. "This is what's on the line."
Since hiring Nappen, news of Allen's case has spread. She's done interviews on CNN and Fox News, and a lengthy article in the Washington Post last week suggested that race may have played a part in her arrest.
Allen said that she's uneasy being in the spotlight and wishes the whole thing had never happened, but that "it's still my right to own a gun."
A defense fund begun for her at gogetfunding.com/project/shaneen-allen-legal-defense-fund has raised more than $12,000, and a Good Samaritan even bought her a car - a dark-blue Daewoo - so she could continue working as a mobile phlebotomist after a bank took possession of her car while she was in jail.
"People have been great. Really nice to me," she said.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on Allen's case. She has a hearing there tomorrow. Gun-control groups have repeatedly argued that ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse. Allen said no one at the gun shop explained it to her.
In the meantime, she's had to try to explain the situation to her sons, how her fear of being taken from them has morphed into this, and it's just as confusing for them.
"My oldest son, he's in denial. This is the first summer he didn't go away to camp. He said he wanted to stay home and be around me," she said, her hands clasped. "It's crazy. I just want to get back living my life."