By Chris L. Jenkins and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 27, 2006
RICHMOND, Jan. 26 -- Del. John S. "Jack" Reid had gone through this morning routine dozens of times. He'd reach into his pocket, pull out his small semiautomatic .380 handgun, release the clip and store the weapon safely in the desk drawer of his office on the seventh floor of the Virginia General Assembly Building.
But something went wrong Thursday. Reid's pistol, which he said he carries for protection, fired as he popped the clip from the handle, sending a single bullet into the cushion of a bulletproof vest that was hanging from the back of his closed office door.
No one was injured, although Reid said he suffered a cut on his hand from the friction of the gun's slide snapping back.
The incident prompted an unexpected debate about gun control and also something uncommon in Virginia political circles: contrition from a state legislator. Reid, a Henrico County Republican, rose from his seat on the floor of the House of Delegates, asked to be heard, explained what had happened and said: "I want to apologize to the members of this body and to the greater body. . . . I'm just thankful that nobody was hurt."
Even a few hours after the incident, Reid -- a 16-year veteran and one of the House of Delegates' most popular and free-spirited members -- was at a loss to explain how an experienced gun owner found himself discharging a firearm during one of the busiest parts of the business day at the state Capitol complex.
"If you asked me if I ever put a finger on a trigger when I wasn't at the shooting range, I'd say no," Reid said at a news conference after his apology. "Whether that's what happened, I can't tell you. I really don't know."
The incident immediately reopened the debate among lawmakers and lobbyists about whether firearms should be allowed at the Capitol, a discussion that has been held for several years. Although Maryland law generally prohibits the carrying of unconcealed or concealed firearms in government buildings, including the State House, anyone in Virginia until recently could carry firearms openly into the legislators' office building and the nearby Capitol.
Then, last year, a committee of delegates and senators passed a rule requiring residents to have a concealed weapon permit to bring a firearm into the complex, even if the gun is carried openly. Some senators proposed barring guns from the buildings altogether. But many gun rights groups opposed the move.
Several lawmakers said they were stunned to find out that Reid carried a gun and even more surprised to hear that it had gone off in the busy building.
"He had no business bringing it into the General Assembly," said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), a supporter of gun control laws. "I think guns should be banned for all these government buildings."
But others said the freedom to carry a firearm responsibly was a necessity.
"Richmond is a dangerous place," said Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson), a former state trooper who spent a year as an undercover police officer in Richmond and carries his gun in the lawmakers' office building. "I carry to protect myself and my family."
Reid, a school administrator in Chesterfield County, said he has a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon and regularly brings his gun to the legislative session to protect himself. He is the sponsor of several controversial bills this year, including efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. But he said he usually ejects the cartridge and carries the bullets in his pocket.
"All of us occasionally get some phone calls that concern us, so during the session I have been carrying it," Reid said. He has had a permit to carry a concealed weapon for two years and has one other gun.
The Henrico County sheriff gave him the bulletproof vest several years ago "as a joke," he said.
Word of the incident spread quickly through the gossipy galaxy of Richmond lawmakers, lobbyists, advocates and reporters. According to one lobbyist, a list was going around with key words that should not be said in front of the General Laws Committee, which Reid chairs. Example: Take your best shot.
Others, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), couldn't help but rib Reid by marveling at what appeared to be the freak coincidence of the single round striking Reid's bulletproof vest.
"It was good if he was shooting at that coat rack and that it was wearing a bulletproof vest," Kaine said.
But Reid, who is known for a biting sense of humor, appeared humbled by the experience.
"It's at least causing me to evaluate myself," said Reid, 63. "I'm just thankful this turned out as it did."
Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.