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Armed and Determined

The Making of a Purist

Something of a night owl, Van Cleave likes to take walks around the lake in his subdivision around midnight. When he does, he "double carries" in case an assailant knocks one weapon out of his hand. It's not about fear, he said. "Who would do that if they were afraid? The word is preparedness."

While he was growing up in Illinois, the only gun in Van Cleave's house was his BB gun. When he was 15, just as the family was moving to Texas, his father died suddenly. The next year, his mother bought him his first gun, a .410-gauge shotgun, and his uncle would take him bird hunting and "plinking" cans. At 21, Van Cleave volunteered to become a reserve deputy sheriff in San Antonio and purchased his first .357 magnum Ruger service revolver.


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)

From that experience, he learned that an assailant with a knife can cover 21 feet in 1.5 seconds, that a bullet can travel 1,500 feet per second. As a deputy, he said, he looked into the eyes of violent criminals and saw no soul, "like a reptile." In this law of the jungle, he said, his gun is the great equalizer.

"I know the odds are slim that I'll ever have to use this. But you've got one life," he said. "If it got into a life-or-death situation, the person without a gun would take themselves out of the gene pool. And I would carry on."

Van Cleave has never shot a gun outside the shooting range. He's never had to draw one. He's never been the victim of a crime "except when someone stole my radio." Since 1984, he's worked out of his home in a quiet, planned community with neighborhoods named Willow Glen and Duck Cove, writing software. He rarely goes out, he said, "except to the grocery store."

He compares carrying a gun to wearing a seat belt. "I have insurance on my house, even though I don't think it's going to burn down," he said. "Things can happen."

Van Cleave joined the league in 1995, a year after it was founded by a group of men incensed that Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North was turned down for a concealed weapon permit. At the time, under a 1942 law, judges could decide whether to issue a concealed weapon permit to private citizens, based on proven necessity and whether the person was "of good character."

When the league and other gun rights advocates got the law changed -- now anyone except a felon can apply for and get a concealed weapon permit -- Van Cleave began to carry a weapon at all times. "I felt naked without it," he said.

He also became a purist. The Second Amendment is critical, he came to believe. Legal experts argue over its meaning, but Van Cleave shares the view of gun groups that it establishes the right to defend yourself, to defend the country against outside attack and "to take back your country should it ever become a totalitarian state."

"We're not envisioning America being taken over anytime soon," he said. "But with al Qaeda, you never know. The citizens will probably need to secure their own homes and restore order until the government got back on its feet."

In his living room, Van Cleave proudly displays the 2004 Grassroots Organization of the Year award from the national Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. The league's command center, so to speak, is upstairs. In it, Van Cleave said, are the computers with which he scans the Internet to keep up on changes in gun laws, monitors chat rooms such as Packing.org and sends out weekly VA-ALERT e-mails to 3,500 subscribers. Sometimes, he stays up until 2 a.m. scrolling through news stories about innocents gunned down who might have been able to save themselves, he said, had they been armed.

Despite his citation, Van Cleave said he has no patience for what he calls the hypocrisy of national gun groups, who have not always supported the league's tactics. "If you can't exercise a right because you might offend someone or you're afraid someone will take it away, well, then you've already lost it."

The league has been scolded privately by national gun rights advocates for openly carrying en masse. Some league members showed up with weapons in full view at a September gun rights conference in Crystal City as the C-SPAN cameras started to roll. Conference organizers asked them to conceal or leave.

Joe Waldron, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, wrote in an e-mail that was later circulated on the Web that Van Cleave and league members threatened to turn the event into a "see the gun nuts wearing guns on their hips conference."


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