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Armed and Determined

Va. Group Openly Carries Guns in Its Effort to Change Laws and Minds

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page A01

RICHMOND -- Philip Van Cleave, a slight, balding, 52-year-old computer programmer, chose beige corduroys to wear this morning, a blue tie and a white shirt with thin blue strips. And a gun to match the outfit.

Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, always carries a gun because you never know when you'll need it. But which one to carry and how can be complicated, he said, much like the choice a woman faces in accessorizing her outfit with the right shoes. Today, he picked a compact black .40-caliber Kahr pistol, slipped it into a special holster and dropped it in his front pocket.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, has carried a gun with him at all times since Virginia enacted its concealed weapons law. "I felt naked without it." (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Arriving for lunch at a Topeka's Steakhouse 'n' Saloon not far from his suburban home, Van Cleave confronted another choice, an annoying one. Because the restaurant serves alcohol, Virginia law says he can't carry a concealed weapon inside. He would have to wear it in plain view. So he chose a different holster, one that fits inside his belt, leaving the gun exposed. Then he sighed.

"It's a pain to re-conceal it. Sometimes you may have to literally do a striptease," he said. "Isn't it asinine that I even have to worry about that?"

He walked into the restaurant. No one blinked. "Smoking or non?" the waiter asked.

Van Cleave believes that every citizen should have the right to carry guns virtually anywhere, at any time, with no background checks, mandatory training or any other interference from government. "If I do something wrong with a gun, put me in jail," he said. "If I don't, leave me alone."

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and its 2,400 members have gone a long way toward achieving that goal in Virginia. In the past few years, the group has successfully sought out and helped strike down gun control ordinances throughout the state.

Its members fought to overturn a decades-old ban on guns in state parks. Then they went after gun prohibitions in city parks. Some cities, such as Radford, acquiesced within days, quickly painting over "No Firearms" signs. Others, including Norfolk, put up a fight before giving in. They've taken on libraries and Lowe's hardware stores so that gun owners can carry inside. They've boycotted shopping malls that bar guns, and they've published "gun unfriendly business" lists.

They sued Fairfax County and "won big time," Van Cleave said gleefully, to prevent officials from banning guns at recreation centers and county buildings. Thanks, in part, to the league, gun owners soon will be able to carry their weapons as far as the terminal doors at Reagan National and Dulles International airports. But to get lawmakers to allow guns on those airports' property, gun owners lost the long-standing ability to carry weapons all the way up to the metal detectors at most other airport terminals in the state. The league won't stop fighting until they can do so again.

And the group won't stop fighting until gun owners can bring their guns inside, right up to the metal detectors, the way they could in most other Virginia airports until the new airport law passed.

In the past few months, Van Cleave and other group members have been turning up in Northern Virginia with their guns, at restaurants and malls and a contentious Falls Church City Council meeting. The show of weapons was intended to test the resolve of city leaders who, in Van Cleave's view, proposed to "harass" gun owners by calling the police if they showed up with any gun, concealed or exposed, on city property. City leaders called it something else: intimidation.

This year, the league's top priority, as always, is to pass a law that would allow Virginia's 112,000 concealed weapon permit holders to carry their hidden guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, something they were allowed to do until 1995, when the concealed weapons law went into effect, barring it.

Van Cleave organizes group members to flood officials with e-mail, write letters to the editor and show up at rallies and protests. They spend hours at the General Assembly in Richmond listening to boring testimony while politely waiting their turn. Much of the time, their weapons are in plain view.

"All lobbyists can pack a room. They just pack a room with guns," said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, a group that favors some gun restrictions.

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