Jim Snyder was sipping a Coke at a Champps restaurant in Reston, his Colt .45 strapped to his hip, when three Fairfax County police officers walked over to his table. Several of Snyder's dinner companions also were openly carrying weapons -- a scene that prompted a call to 911.

The diners explained that they were simply exercising their rights under Virginia law, Snyder said. And, as the officers made some phone calls to check whether that was true, Snyder relaxed and settled in to enjoy his dinner.

"It didn't bother me at all because I knew what the law was," Snyder, 54, who lives in the Kingstowne area, said yesterday. "I just wanted to see how long it took them to figure it out."

Snyder carries a gun for protection but had it that night because the group had been at a shooting range. He knows that it is perfectly legal in Virginia to openly pack a pistol, and he's delighted that his dining experience, along with a few recent similar incidents, have helped educate some folks, he said.

Fairfax police said that three times in the last month, including the July 2 incident at Champps, residents have been spotted in the county with guns strapped to their hips. In one instance, police wrongly confiscated guns from two college students at a Starbucks and filed misdemeanor charges, mistakes that were corrected the next day.

That case prompted the department to issue a reminder to officers that it's legal to "open carry" most guns in the state.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said his group spread the word about the Starbucks incident, perhaps prompting other gun owners to openly carry their weapons.

"I think people said, 'I don't like what happened to these guys and I'm going to open carry,' " said Van Cleave, a former Texas deputy sheriff. He noted that it is illegal in Virginia to carry concealed weapons in restaurants where alcohol is served, so those patrons don't have the option to hide their weapons. Concealed weapons require a permit.

Virginia Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said 21 other states have similar open-carry laws.

"In a suburban or urban area, it sometimes causes a level of discomfort but, in my opinion, that level of discomfort doesn't outweigh the constitutional right to bear firearms," Stolle said.

Some, such as Cindy Jones, worry that openly toting guns could make them too accessible to the wrong fingers. "The image that comes to mind is a child could grab it," said Jones, 50, a psychologist. "It's frightening to think that that's the mind-set. It makes me think of a gunslinger with a holster."

Others said they would not be overly concerned if they ran into gun-toting neighbors.

"I'd rather they were open than concealed," said Amber Smith, 47, a horse trainer who grew up around guns and hunters and was taught to shoot by her father. Smith said she might feel different in some contexts -- such as visiting a high-crime locale -- or if the person next to her had serious firepower.

Still, she added, making a scene by lugging some steel is a little too much for her taste. "It's absurd that people think they need to make a political point by carrying it into a coffee shop. They could leave it in the car," Smith said.

But getting people's attention, even if it makes them uncomfortable, is a virtuous and important part of defending the right to bear arms, argues Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), an outspoken gun rights advocate and one of Virginia's most conservative politicians.

"Many people don't recognize that the right has existed since the settlement of Virginia in 1607," he said. "A lot of our Constitutional rights tend to make people nervous under certain circumstances."

Black also assumes that most people who would openly carry a firearm would also tend to be those with a concealed weapons permit, a highly law-abiding group, he said.

Government contractor Melinda Meador's gun has elicited a host of reactions over the years. She generally brings hers along when she dines out, she said, and the Sterling resident follows a few basic rules.

She calmly explains the law, avoids confrontation, and keeps her gun in its holster. "You certainly don't clear leather," Meador said.