Legal, but Not Always Wanted
Some Businesses In Va. Might Ban Armed Patrons
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page C01
On Friday afternoon, Kevin M. Tracy ordered signs to be posted in the windows of the four The Bungalow restaurants in Northern Virginia. They'll read: "The Bungalow, a Homeland Security model facility. No firearms, no WMDs, safe zone."
Tracy, the restaurants' director of operations, said the small chain decided to ban gun-toting customers in March after a man with a firearm strapped to his hip sat down in its Franconia restaurant and ordered a margarita. The man properly asserted that Virginia law allows him to openly carry his weapon. But Tracy thinks guns, with the exception of those carried by police officers, have no place in his restaurants.
"People change when they have alcohol," Tracy said. "I think people make too many bad judgments. I've had people who were perfectly wonderful snap."
Although Virginians have long been able to openly carry guns in the Old Dominion, the little-known right recently stirred up controversy when several gun-carrying customers turned heads at Northern Virginia restaurants. While gun rights activists who cite their constitutional right to bear arms say this is generating support for their cause; gun-control supporters warn of a "Wild West society" and hope the episodes prompt a public backlash.
Virginia residents must have permits to carry concealed weapons, which are prohibited by law from establishments that serve alcohol -- but guns openly displayed are permitted. Still, restaurant and other business owners in the state have the right to ban customers carrying weapons -- both openly carried and concealed -- on their property, said Tom Lisk, general counsel for the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association. Establishments can either post a notice or approach customers directly, he said, and people who violate the notice can be prosecuted under a trespass statute.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), said his office could not comment on whether businesses may legally ban patrons carrying guns, because it requires an "interpretation of law" that could not immediately be provided.
Many residents didn't know they had the right to pack a pistol in public until the recent incidents came to light. Fairfax police have said that residents have been spotted in the county with guns strapped to their hips three times in recent weeks.
In the first instance, on June 14, officers wrongly confiscated weapons from two college students at a Starbucks and filed misdemeanor charges. Police corrected the mistake -- and threw out the charges -- the next day.
A few weeks later, police said, a group of men openly carrying guns at a Champps restaurant in Reston prompted a 911 call. Three days after that, an officer spotted a couple packing pistols at Reston Town Center. All three instances involved members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization of thousands of gun owners statewide, according to Philip Van Cleave, the group's president.
Jim Snyder, 54, of the Kingstowne area, one of the gun owners spotted at Champps, said there's an unfair perception that he and his brethren are prone to violence. He carries his Colt .45 for protection, he said, and likens it to a life insurance policy or a fire extinguisher.
"I'm definitely not a wannabe Rambo," said Snyder, who does not have a concealed weapons permit and must carry his gun openly. "I'd rather skulk away from a confrontation than go in. This is a tool of last resort."
Activists on both sides of the issue and Virginia lawmakers said the incidents are likely to generate heated discussion over gun laws in the next General Assembly session. Some lawmakers who share Tracy's concern said the debate, as in recent years, is likely to center on whether patrons should be allowed to carry guns in restaurants, such as The Bungalow, that serve alcohol.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said she'll reintroduce a bill that would prohibit openly carried guns anywhere alcohol is served.
"I think that any reasonable person would agree that alcohol and guns don't mix," Howell said. "It's better to make sure that nothing happens than be sorry afterward. I expect that now that the public is aware of this outrageous behavior they'll be behind" the bill.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company