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Group Takes Its Cause, And Guns, to Va. Capitol

Residents Push Looser Weapons Laws

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page B03

RICHMOND, Jan. 17 -- The metal detector just inside the doors of Virginia's General Assembly Building let out a shriek Monday as Stafford resident Bruce Jackson strode through.

That was not at all surprising, since Jackson was wearing a loaded .45-caliber handgun under his blazer. On the other side of the gate, a uniformed Capitol Police officer examined his driver's license, then his concealed handgun permit, had a quick word and waved him along.

Virginia Gun Bills

Gun rights advocates and gun control supporters visited Richmond yesterday to lobby the legislature. These bills, under consideration by Virginia's General Assembly, are among the top concerns for both sides:

SB 850: This Senate bill would allow those who own guns legally to carry their weapons in all public buildings. The bill would invalidate a rule adopted in March that barred Virginians from carrying guns in the Capitol and General Assembly Building without a concealed handgun permit. Gun rights advocates say the bill is needed to protect those without the permits who can legally carry guns openly elsewhere.

SB 807: This Senate bill would require private sellers to conduct criminal background checks on prospective buyers at gun shows, a requirement now limited to licensed dealers.

HB 2424: If this House bill passed, gun owners with permits could wear their guns concealed in restaurants and bars where alcohol is served, provided they don't drink.

HB 2535: This House bill would allow those with concealed handgun permits to have guns in their cars on public school property. Guns on school property are currently illegal in Virginia, except in select cases.

The routine took only a few moments, but for Jackson and other members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, it required one step too many.

Until March, anyone could carry firearms openly into the legislators' office building and the Capitol nearby. Then a joint committee of delegates and senators passed a rule requiring residents to hold a concealed gun permit to bring in a firearm, even if they plan to carry it openly.

Soon, people without permits will be able to check their guns at the door, relinquishing them to a locker the Capitol Police have ordered, said Maj. Michael A. Jones, a police spokesman. Until it arrives, they will be turned away.

"You don't have to ask the government for permission to carry a gun," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the league. "Once you start whittling away at the right, when do you stop?"

About 30 members of the league, a 2,400-member gun advocacy group, visited Richmond on Monday to lobby for loosened rules for gun owners. Besides the new restriction, the group also hopes to repeal a ban on carrying concealed weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol. "It's not about drinking," Van Cleave said. "It's about going into a restaurant to eat."

Members of the same group caused a stir in Northern Virginia last year, when police were called out several times after members wore their guns openly to restaurants, including Starbucks and Champps. Carrying a gun openly is legal in Virginia, however, and each instance was resolved in their favor.

In the fall, a group of league members again attracted attention when they displayed their guns at a Falls Church City Council meeting.

The new rule at the Capitol did not bar any group members from bringing their weapons into the building Monday -- they're all permit holders -- but they worry it could lead to new restrictions at local government hearings such as in Falls Church. Since 2002, communities have been prohibited from enacting gun restrictions unless they are endorsed in Richmond.

"It's do as we say, not do as we do," said Jim Snyder, a director of the league.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a strong proponent of the new restriction in Richmond, said the fear is misplaced. He called the permit requirement a "common-sense procedure" that ensures that Capitol police know gun owners have undergone a background check, required for a permit, before proceeding into the building.

"We can't have a helter-skelter approach in Virginia, where into some buildings you can take guns and into some you can't," said Stolle, who generally supports gun rights. But "there's only one Capitol. There's a significant difference."

No one called police to the General Assembly Building on Monday as members of the group went office to office, chatting up legislative aides and handing out buttons. Most, like Jackson and Van Cleave, packed heat discreetly underneath jackets.

A few, such as Web programmer Matt Martin from Henrico County, wore guns strapped to their hips -- in his case, a loaded Kimber 1911, which he said he carries openly "anywhere and everywhere." They attracted a few stares but no protest.

The league is a relatively small gun rights group. The far better known National Rifle Association has about 100,000 members in Virginia.

Also lobbying the legislature Monday was Virginians Against Handgun Violence. That group is pushing for a law to require private sellers to conduct the same background checks at gun shows required of licensed dealers. They also oppose fiddling with the capital's new rule.

Group member Josh Horwitz of Arlington said that requiring the permits means police know gun-toting lobbyists have cleared a criminal check. Without them, he said, "we don't know if they're law abiding. We don't know that they're skilled. We don't know that they're trained."

"It defies logic" to allow guns into the Capitol buildings, said Martina Leinz, who also works with the Million Mom March, which advocates gun control. "It's just common sense."

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