Four years ago, after an alcoholic patient threatened to firebomb his home, Dr. Joseph M. Kline, a 67-year-old Arlington dentist, applied for -- and received -- a permit to pack a hidden .38 caliber revolver.
"In my work I get so many alcoholics who are on drugs and really spaced out," said Kline, who assists a Northern Virginia group helping problem drinkers. "I feel like I need protection . . . My life has been threatened and I like to have equal opportunity."
Kline is not alone. An estimated 9,000 Maryland and Virginia residents have permits to carry concealed weapons, in sharp contrast to the District of Columbia where it is virtually impossible for anyone other than a law enforcement officer to carry a concealed gun legally.
Precise figures on gun ownerhsip are impossible to obtain, but the National Rifle Association estimates that 75 million Americans own 200 million guns, a fact Virginia and Maryland officials say may account for the increasing number of people they say are seeking permission to tote hidden pistols in their states.
In Washington's Virginia suburbs, where permits are relatively easy to obtain, the roster of gun carriers include some of the areas most prominent civic leaders. Court records show that those permitted to carry concealed weapons include:
Alexandria's former mayor Frank E. Mann.
U.S. Attorney Justin Williams.
Alexandria's Chief Circuit Court Judge Wiley R. Wright Jr.
Bank President C.S. Taylor Burke Jr. of Alexandria.
"It's my security blanket," Burke says. "Bankers are not popular people."
In Virginia, where elections have been won or lost on the degree of a candidate's aversion to gun controls, Burke speaks for many.
Two top officials in the administration of Virginia's stridently anti-gun-control Republican Gov. John N. Dalton also have permits.
Senior Executive Assistant Larry Murphy said in an interview last year that he obtained a permit because "there are many decisions made by me and the governor which might place my life in danger."
Dalton's Secretary of Administration and Finance Charles B. Walker said that although he does not own a gun "you never know when in some of my travels with the governor I might have to carry a gun for one of the state troopers who protect the governor."
The easy availability of concealed gun permits in Virginia and Maryland alarms gun control advocates and some law enforcement officials who say they are certain that the 9,000 permit-holders represent only a fraction of the number actually carrying concealed weapons.
"We don't buy the self-defense use of a handgun," said Charles Orasin, executive vice president of Handgun Control, a Washington-based lobbying group. "Unless you always have it at the ready with your finger on the trigger it's not going to do you much good, because people are usually attacked unaware."
Sam Fields, a director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, agrees. "Imagine if they gave out drivers permits, not for the purpose of driving around routinely but to use in a crisis situation, like a 90-mile-per-hour chase down Route 50 at rush hour. Now imagine that when they gave out a permit they never checked your driving ability. That's how ridiculous Virginia's law is," he said.
Virginia legislators disagree, saying that their law requiring anyone other than certain law enforcement officials and rural mail carriers to obtain the concealed gun permit from the local circuit courts is more than adequate regulation.
Permit requirements vary widely even in Virginia. Former Alexandria Mayor Mann says they are so lax "almost anybody can go and get a permit" in that city.
Mann may be overstating the case, since some jurisdictions, including Alexandria, require that prospective permit holders be photographed, fingerprinted and submitted to police background checks. Others merely ask that an applicant attend an informal interview with a state judge.
Maryland state police who issue permits perform considerably more extensive background checks that may take as long as two months to complete. Permits there are issued with 40 possible restrictions governing where and when concealed weapons may be carried.
In Washington, it is technically possible for a private citizen to get a license to carry a gun, but such permits are issued "extremely rarely" and "under highly special circumstances" at the discretion of the chief of police, a high D.C. police official said yesterday.
The official estimated that fewer than a dozen permits had been issued here over the last 10 years, and said that "to his knowledge" there were none now in valid use.
There are no such restrictions in Virginia, where the law "gives the chief circuit court judge very great leeway," according to Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. Horan said that permit holders must convince officials of their "good moral character" and the necessity of carrying a concealed weapon.
"The peculiar part of Virginia law is that you can strap on a six-shooter and walk down the main street of Fairfax, or drive with a loaded .45 on the seat beside you or in the glove compartment and you commit no offense because that's not concealment," Horan said.
"But put that pistol in your pocket or purse or under the front seat without a permit, and because it's concealed on or near your body that's a crime."
Large numbers of Virginians are carrying concealed guns. In 1978 nearly 2,500 permits were issued in Norfolk, Virginia's largest city, and more than 900 in Richmond. Last year about 150 permits were issued or renewed in Northern Virginia, most of them in Alexandria.
Mann, that city's former mayor, says he has packed a concealed revolver at various times the past 15 years. "I have 120 apartment units in this city, all of them with elderly tenants subject to harassment by muggers, robbers and rapists. I inspect my property regularly and I feel better having my own gun on my person. It's comforting."
That's how Robin Traywick, a 30-year-old reporter for the Living Today pearl-handled revolver she sometimes carries in her purse. Traywick, who used to check her gun with State Capitol police when she worked for the state, has no permit. "I figured I'd worry about rules later," she said.
"I don't want anybody messing with me in any way," said Traywick, who says she sometimes takes her German shepherd on assignment with her to areas she considers dangerous.
"With the dog and the gun I feel safe, like I can go anywhere. "I never had any occasion to use it but I've always played out scenes in my head about what I'd do if I had to."
"I don't usually think of shooting someone in the heart but rather waving it around and scaring someone as a deterrent," she said.
"I grew up in a house where guns were like furniture," said bank president Burke. "We always had whiskey and guns in the house, but they were treated with respect."
U.S. Attorney Williams has had a permit since 1973 and says he occasionally has carried a hidden gun. So did Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Henry E. Hudson when he was an assistant federal prosecutor.Richmond's Commonwealth Attorney Aubrey Davis said he keeps his .38 caliber Colt detective special in the trunk of his car because his permit has expired.
"I guess one of the reasons I carry it is partly that it's an ego trip because I'm a former police officer," said Davis. "But I'm realistic: look at all the bodyguards the president had in Dallas."
Fairfax prosecutor Horan said he never has carried a concealed gun and got rid of his guns before his children were born. "I've never been all that impressed that weapons would do much good," said Horan, regarded as one of the toughest and best-known prosecutors in Virginia. "If I spent any time worrying about people who might shoot me I'd spend a lot of time worrying."
Virginia Union University basketball coach Dave Robbins last year got a permit for a .38 caliber handgun he had kept illegally hidden in his car for 15 years.
"I travel around the state a lot recruiting" said the Richmond coach, "and you never know what you might run into if your car should break down. I put the gun under the seat or in the glove compartment because putting it on the dashboard makes it look like you have bad feelings.
"I told the judge I'd just feel more secure having it," said Robbins.
Several members of the Virginia General Assembly say they bring their guns to Richmond when the legislature meets, keeping them in their glove compartments or hotel rooms -- actions not illegal under Virginia law.
"I think it might be a pretty good idea for you to carry one up there in Northern Virginia," said Rep. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) who says his wife wears a holster while jogging near their rural home in the southern part of the state.
"Around here every pickup truck has a rifle on the gun rack in the window," Wilkins said. "In Virginia we believe very strongly in the right to bear arms."
That view is reflected in the Virginia General Assembly, dominated by members like Wilkins from the state's rural areas who repeatedly squelch gun control measures by burying them in a hostile "militia and police" committee.
"The General Assembly articulates a law and-order attitude but we've never gotten to first base with a bill that would bar felons from carrying guns," said Horan of a proposal backed by the Virginia Commonwealth's Attorneys Association.
"The argument was, What about some poor guy who has a few drinks one night and runs over somebody and serves a term for manslaughter. Are you going to bar him from hunting for the rest of his life?" Horan said.
Gun control advocates, including Orasin say that such arguments illustrate one of the major weaknesses in Virginia's gun laws.
"We think people should be thoroughly checked out before they're allowed to carry very deadly weapons on the street," Orasin said."Otherwise what you're talking about is going back to a frontier mentally: Who's faster on the draw?"