Guns Worn In Open Legal, But Alarm Va.
'Exercising Right' Called 'Unreasonable' by Some
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page A01
On July 2, Fairfax County police received a 911 call from a Champps restaurant in Reston. Six men are seated at a table, the caller said. They're all armed.
Dispatchers quickly sent four officers to the scene. The officers were "extremely polite" and were hoping that some of the men were in law enforcement, said Sgt. Richard Perez, a spokesman for the police department. None was.
The men told the officers "they were just exercising their rights as citizens of the commonwealth," Perez said.
Turns out, packing a pistol in public is perfectly legal in Virginia. And three times in the last month, including at Champps on Sunset Hills Road, residents have been spotted out and about in the county, with guns strapped to their hips, exercising that right.
In the first episode, at a Starbucks, Fairfax police wrongly confiscated weapons from two college students and charged them with a misdemeanor. Police realized their mistake, returned the guns and tore up the charges the next day. Police commanders have since issued a reminder to officers that "open carry" is the law of the land in the Old Dominion.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization of thousands of Virginia gun owners, said members were involved in all three police encounters. But he said there was no coordinated campaign to start packing heat publicly.
"It was probably more of a coincidence, but not completely," Van Cleave said, noting that word of the improper confiscation spread quickly among members through e-mail. "This is a good opportunity to educate people. We have this inherent right, and not many people exercised it."
In Virginia, as in many states, carrying a concealed weapon requires a permit, issued by a local court. But no permit is required to simply wield a gun in the open, a right reinforced by a state law that took effect July 1. Not so in the District and Maryland, unless you're a police or federal officer.
Fairfax police are baffled by the sudden display of weaponry but assume it was done to make some sort of statement.
"Crime is at 20-year lows in the county," Lt. Col. Charles K. Peters pointed out, even though the population is soaring. The county's homicide rate was the lowest in the nation last year among the 30 largest jurisdictions. "Hopefully no one feels the need to carry a gun, lawfully or unlawfully," Peters said. "But there's no question it is lawful to carry a gun on the street. So we've had to ensure that all of our officers are updated on the nuances of Virginia law that allow citizens to carry firearms in public places."
Although legal, it is disconcerting to some people.
"This just shows you the extreme nature of what they're trying to do," said Bob Ricker, head of Virginians for Public Safety. "You don't want to go to Starbucks or Reston Town Center and see somebody with a firearm strapped on," he added, referring to two locations where armed patrons were found. "It's just something that I think is completely unreasonable. We all understand the concept of self-defense. . . . But when you're talking about Fairfax County, you have to look at what is reasonable."
The first incident, at a Starbucks on Leesburg Pike near Tysons Corner, might have inspired other gun owners to carry openly. It began shortly before 10 p.m. June 14, Perez said, with a complaint from a citizen. Police arrived to find a 19-year-old man carrying a .22-caliber pistol and a 21-year-old man with a 9mm pistol.
Perez said an officer spoke with the men, then took their guns and charged them with possession of a firearm in a public place. Virginia law 18.2-287.4 expressly prohibits "carrying loaded firearms in public areas."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company