State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a former police officer and a gun rights advocate, and other lawmakers have warned the group that their "in your face" open-carry tactics might serve only to galvanize the opposition. "They are turning a smoldering spark into a raging fire right now as the state becomes more urban and less rural," he said. "That's a battle that they may be likely to lose."
David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member, is a case in point. When Van Cleave and league members carried weapons to a recent meeting to protest a gun control proposal, Snyder became more determined to fight them.
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)
"Everyone I talk to asks, 'What planet are you on?' They're astounded that people are free to carry guns into governmental legislative chambers. It's absurd," he said. "It's time that someone draws the line and said that's not going to happen. We're not backing down."
Although the league is visible and tenacious, its true power comes from the General Assembly, considered one of the most gun-friendly legislative bodies in the nation. Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who openly courted the National Rifle Association to win election, signed 15 pro-gun bills into law in the last session alone.
In two separate and largely unnoticed actions in recent years, lawmakers in Richmond overturned the right of cities and counties to make their own gun control ordinances. In 1987, lawmakers prohibited localities from making new gun control laws. This year, they wiped out any gun regulations that existed prior to 1987. Gone was Alexandria's handgun ban. Gone was the 60-year-old Fairfax County law requiring a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.
On July 1, the latest "state preemption" law went into effect. Now, guns may be carried anywhere but in courthouses, schools, churches during services or on clearly posted private property. Concealed guns are banned in bars.
Van Cleave said the open carrying helps educate citizens and the police, many of whom did not know how liberal Virginia's gun laws are. When police stripped two young men of their weapons in a Starbucks near Tysons Corner in June, Van Cleave wrote memos to set Fairfax police straight.
Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), a league supporter, said the restaurant ban is "a stupid law. There's not one incident that I know of where someone concealed carried, where they get drunk and shoot up the place."
Outraged gun control advocates, however, refer to the proposal to end the ban as the "designated shooter" bill.
The National Rifle Association, with 100,000 members in Virginia, has not taken a position on the restaurant bill for the upcoming session. And it largely keeps its distance from the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
"I've never run into them. Never talked to them," said Randy Kozuch, the NRA's national director of state and local affairs. "I think they just want to stir it up."
Always Within Reach
Back from lunch and practice at a nearby shooting range, Van Cleave unwinds on his mauve sofa in his mauve living room amid silk flowers and tiny crystal tchotchkes. In the kitchen, his wife tends to the tiny papillon show dogs she breeds. They have no children.
The one place you don't see a gun is in his suburban home. They may be locked away in his gun safe with its rapid-action pressure lock for quick opening in the night should an intruder break in. He won't say. He will tell you that one is always within reach and that each one is equipped with tiny dots of green-glowing radioactive tritium, the better to locate in the dark.
"Security," he said, "is 24 hours a day."