By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008
RICHMOND, March 20 -- At least twice in recent weeks, Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw proclaimed on the Senate floor that customers who bring guns into restaurants in urban areas of the state are asked to leave.
Gun rights advocates say that's not true. To prove the Fairfax County Democrat wrong, they are planning to bring guns into restaurants in his district each Saturday in April.
"It was a crazy statement," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. "We're going to set the record straight."
Saslaw's comments have prompted conversations among gun-rights advocates on Web sites and blogs, many of which are promoting the April events. Some people described their own experience of bringing guns into Northern Virginia restaurants.
Thirty-four states allow customers to carry guns into restaurants that serve alcohol, according to the National Rifle Association. Maryland law allows customers to carry concealed weapons in restaurants as long as they have a permit. The District, which has the nation's most restrictive gun law, does not allow customers to bring guns into restaurants.
Members of Virginia Citizens Defense League plan to carry guns into restaurants for lunch April 5, 12 and 19 and then for dinner on April 26. Van Cleave said 80 people have signed up for the dinner.
Dave Vann of Falls Church, who organized the April events, declined to specify the restaurants for fear that someone will warn the owners.
Tom Lisk, a lobbyist for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents about 1,100 restaurants in the state, said his group is considering alerting Fairfax restaurants so that they will not be surprised or alarmed.
"What they are planning to do is certainly legal," Lisk said, adding that "they are using restaurants to advance their political and legislative agenda."
Lawmakers debated gun control several times during the legislative session that ended last week, considering bills that would have loosened restrictions on where a person may carry or place firearms. The issue often divides legislators from urban and rural areas.
Under Virginia law, people may carry guns into any of the 6,000 restaurants in the state that serve alcohol, as long as the weapons are displayed openly and not concealed. They also are allowed to take concealed weapons into the 11,000 restaurants that do not serve alcohol, as long as they have a permit.
The House and Senate passed a bill this month that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol. Gun advocates have tried to change the concealed weapon law every year since it went into effect in 1995, but this year was the first time it passed both chambers.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) vetoed the bill, saying it would endanger restaurant employees and customers.
He said he based his decision on recommendations from the law enforcement community. Legislators tried but failed to override Kaine's veto.
"In most urban areas, you walk into a restaurant with a gun on your hip, they're going to tell you to get out," Saslaw said March 5 during a debate to override the veto. "You're not going to get any meal or any drink."
Saslaw said in an interview that he and his wife dine out "all the time" and that they have never seen anyone in a restaurant in his district with a gun. He said he did know of the April events.
"If the owner . . . wants them to get out, then they need to get out," Saslaw said.
Mike Stollenwerk, co-founder of OpenCarry.org, which advocates gun rights, said it is not unusual for people to carry guns into restaurants in Saslaw's district, and they are almost never asked to leave.
"They don't turn away paying customers," Stollenwerk said.
Lisk said, however, that it is not common for customers to openly display firearms in restaurants in the state, and few have policies on what steps to take if customers do. He said that, when faced with the situation, some restaurants owners will ask people to leave.
Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), who unsuccessfully pushed this year for a law that would require gun sellers to conduct background checks on all buyers at gun shows, said he has never seen anyone in a restaurant in Northern Virginia with a gun.
"I would think if restaurants knew, they would not like that at all," he said. "Nobody denies their right to bring a gun in, but it's pretty clear that if it's private property, they can be asked to leave."