Virginia gun-rights enthusiasts celebrate Va. law on firearms in bars

Members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League gathered Thursday, July 1, at Champps in Reston to celebrate their new-found right to carry guns in bars, so long as they don't drink.
By Fredrick Kunkle
Saturday, July 3, 2010

When Anthony Dahm visited Champps Americana restaurant and bar Thursday, his menu of options had doubled: Thanks to a change in Virginia's gun laws, he could carry a semiautomatic handgun hidden behind the pouch holding his children's allergy medicine -- as well as the one worn openly on his hip -- without fear of committing a crime.

That was cause enough for Dahm to celebrate at the Reston restaurant with about 80 other members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights organization that had long pushed for the new law, which allows people with concealed-weapon permits to go armed in places that serve alcohol as long as they don't imbibe.

Dahm, 44, a stay-at-home father from Vienna, said he seldom drinks and would rather run from a confrontation than shoot, yet the law gives him peace of mind that he can pack a friend in restaurants such as Champps.

The measure, popularly known as "guns-in-bars," took effect Thursday. After years of trying, the VCDL pushed the bill through the General Assembly this year and onto the desk of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who signed it. Similar measures were vetoed twice by his predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat whose grimmest days in office followed the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

The new law marks another step toward the normalization of carrying guns just about anywhere in Virginia. It also comes as gun-rights advocates are savoring Monday's Supreme Court decision that the Second Amendment right of individuals to keep and bear arms cannot be infringed by state or local laws.

Building on the landmark 2008 Heller ruling that overturned the District's handgun ban, the Supreme Court's McDonald v. Chicago decision all but struck down laws that effectively banned handgun ownership. The ruling also opens the way to legal challenges against gun laws at every level of government. Among the more likely targets is Maryland, which regulates firearms more strictly than Virginia does.

James Purtilo, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland who writes the gun-rights blog Tripwire, said gun-rights advocates would welcome the opportunity to attack Maryland laws limiting handgun purchases to one a month or Maryland State Police handgun-licensing requirements that require applicants to open up their health records to prove that they are not mentally ill.

"Obviously, it opens the door," said John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president for the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore. "It also slams the door in the face of all those who said for years and years that [the Second Amendment] doesn't apply to the states."

But Casey Anderson, a spokesman for CeaseFire Maryland, said gun-control groups were heartened by language in both Supreme Court rulings emphasizing that Second Amendment rights are not absolute and can endure reasonable regulations, such as by prohibiting felons and the mentally ill from having guns or keeping weapons out of places such as schools. Regulations imposed by the D.C. Council after the Heller decision have already withstood a federal court challenge.

But, for the most part, the Supreme Court and Virginia's new gun-friendly governor have put gun-rights folks in a mood to party -- even if, at Champps, the average diner might not have known anything special was going on. Except for the unusual number of people openly toting guns and wearing blaze-orange "Guns Save Lives" stickers, members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League celebrated quietly, carving steaks, sipping iced tea and talking guns. Altogether more than 450 VCDL members celebrated in Reston and at similar parties in Norfolk, Richmond, Woodbridge, Vinton, Yorktown and Charlottesville.

Danyelle and Craig Davis -- he with a holstered Glock 9mm, she with a slightly smaller Glock of the same caliber -- took along their 10-month-old, Cathleen, to help celebrate. (It also happened to be Danyelle's 33rd birthday.)

The couple, who work with computers and live in Winchester, said Virginia's lenient gun laws played a part in their decision to relocate from Baltimore. Craig Davis, 32, likes being able to, say, go downtown, armed, to run errands without a fuss.

"If I was to do that in Maryland, I'd be arrested," he said.

A cheer rose from a couple of tables when Philip Van Cleave, the group's president, unveiled a chocolate-and-vanilla sheet cake with the VCDL logo and the words: "Rights Restored, Ban Repealed." He decided against a speech because the restaurant was noisy and crowded with many non-gun-toting customers glued to the soccer and baseball games on giant TV screens.

"Gun rights have been moving strongly in favor of less control. For us, this is a big step," Van Cleave said. He said his group has its sights on renewing efforts to repeal Virginia's law prohibiting the purchase of more than one handgun in a 30-day period and opening more places to unrestricted carrying of weapons.

"Honestly, the likelihood of using it is very slim," said Bill Clark, 34, of Springfield, who was discreetly carrying his Sig Sauer .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun tucked under his shirt. "But I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it."

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