Gun debate plays out at Northern Virginia gun shop

December 23, 2012

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy revived the national gun-control debate, Dennis Pratt figured it was only a matter of time before his Falls Church gun shop attracted attention.

Sure enough, the debate played out Sunday in a kind of miniature as a handful of protesters gathered outside the store while customers shopped and supported the merchant.

“I’m a strong supporter of the Constitution — the First Amendment,” said Pratt, referring to the protesters’ free-speech rights. “I hope [the protesters] respect our right to bear arms and to sell firearms to folks.”

Pratt owns NOVA Firearms, which advertises itself as the only dealer inside the Beltway licensed to sell machine guns and silencers.

Outside, a small group organized by the Rev. Jim Burch, principal bishop of the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit, convened. Burch said NOVA was not the “target” but a symbol of the proliferation of guns and inadequate gun laws.

“Virginia is not the worst in the nation, but it is one of the worst at just letting willy-nilly anyone get” a gun, Burch said.

Burch said he and other ministers, representing several faiths, also wanted to draw attention to the statements of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who said in an interview on WTOP (103.5 FM) last week that Virginia should consider allowing principals, teachers and other school staff to be armed.

McDonnell has called for the creation of a task force to study school safety practices.

Burch called McDonnell’s suggestion of armed school staff “lamebrained.”

“Put more guns in school? It does not compute,” he said.

Burch’s event was lightly attended; he and perhaps six others stood on the sidewalk with signs as cars zoomed past on Broad Street, where NOVA sits across the street from a florist and next to a leather store. Three police officers were posted across the street, but there were more shoppers than protesters.

“I’m concerned about the lack of good legislation for gun control,” said Marinetta Connito Hjort, 58, of Falls Church, a conflict resolution consultant.

Burch attributed the light turnout to the nearness of the Christmas holiday.

Pratt figured it was because Virginians favor the Second Amendment. “This is a very Democratic, liberal community of Virginia, but there’s strong support for gun rights,” he said. “We sell firearms to both Republicans and Democrats.”

A customer who gave only his first name, Peter, carried a pistol — a Sig Sauer P229 — and wore a National Rifle Association cap and a shirt bearing a bright orange sticker that read “Guns SAVE Lives.”

The 38-year-old defense contractor said he wanted to support Pratt, “a good merchant,” and to make sure the public hears that guns are used for protection, which he called “the other side of the story.”

The protest continued the participation of churches in the gun-control debate since the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Last Sunday, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, preached on the topic and received standing ovations at two services.

Another coalition gathered Friday at the cathedral’s garden for a moment of silence as bells tolled for the Sandy Hook victims. Religious leaders are asking parishioners to participate Feb. 5 in a national call-in day to lobby Congress for gun control and mental-health changes.

Pratt said sales, particularly of assault rifles, have been steady.

“There’s no law against selling them,” he said. “Until there is, we’re going to sell them.”

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