On Friday afternoon, Kevin M. Tracy ordered signs to be posted in the windows of the four The Bungalow restaurants in Northern Virginia. They'll read: "The Bungalow, a Homeland Security model facility. No firearms, no WMDs, safe zone."
Tracy, the restaurants' director of operations, said the small chain decided to ban gun-toting customers in March after a man with a firearm strapped to his hip sat down in its Franconia restaurant and ordered a margarita. The man properly asserted that Virginia law allows him to openly carry his weapon. But Tracy thinks guns, with the exception of those carried by police officers, have no place in his restaurants.
"People change when they have alcohol," Tracy said. "I think people make too many bad judgments. I've had people who were perfectly wonderful snap."
Although Virginians have long been able to openly carry guns in the Old Dominion, the little-known right recently stirred up controversy when several gun-carrying customers turned heads at Northern Virginia restaurants. While gun rights activists who cite their constitutional right to bear arms say this is generating support for their cause; gun-control supporters warn of a "Wild West society" and hope the episodes prompt a public backlash.
Virginia residents must have permits to carry concealed weapons, which are prohibited by law from establishments that serve alcohol -- but guns openly displayed are permitted. Still, restaurant and other business owners in the state have the right to ban customers carrying weapons -- both openly carried and concealed -- on their property, said Tom Lisk, general counsel for the Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association. Establishments can either post a notice or approach customers directly, he said, and people who violate the notice can be prosecuted under a trespass statute.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), said his office could not comment on whether businesses may legally ban patrons carrying guns, because it requires an "interpretation of law" that could not immediately be provided.
Many residents didn't know they had the right to pack a pistol in public until the recent incidents came to light. Fairfax police have said that residents have been spotted in the county with guns strapped to their hips three times in recent weeks.
In the first instance, on June 14, officers wrongly confiscated weapons from two college students at a Starbucks and filed misdemeanor charges. Police corrected the mistake -- and threw out the charges -- the next day.
A few weeks later, police said, a group of men openly carrying guns at a Champps restaurant in Reston prompted a 911 call. Three days after that, an officer spotted a couple packing pistols at Reston Town Center. All three instances involved members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization of thousands of gun owners statewide, according to Philip Van Cleave, the group's president.
Jim Snyder, 54, of the Kingstowne area, one of the gun owners spotted at Champps, said there's an unfair perception that he and his brethren are prone to violence. He carries his Colt .45 for protection, he said, and likens it to a life insurance policy or a fire extinguisher.
"I'm definitely not a wannabe Rambo," said Snyder, who does not have a concealed weapons permit and must carry his gun openly. "I'd rather skulk away from a confrontation than go in. This is a tool of last resort."
Activists on both sides of the issue and Virginia lawmakers said the incidents are likely to generate heated discussion over gun laws in the next General Assembly session. Some lawmakers who share Tracy's concern said the debate, as in recent years, is likely to center on whether patrons should be allowed to carry guns in restaurants, such as The Bungalow, that serve alcohol.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said she'll reintroduce a bill that would prohibit openly carried guns anywhere alcohol is served.
"I think that any reasonable person would agree that alcohol and guns don't mix," Howell said. "It's better to make sure that nothing happens than be sorry afterward. I expect that now that the public is aware of this outrageous behavior they'll be behind" the bill.
Jim Sollo, president of Virginians Against Handgun Violence, said his group believes the combination of guns and alcohol will eventually lead to trouble. He's counting on the recent episodes to stir up support for Howell's legislation next year.
"We hope that the public is frightened, nervous about this, and gets in touch with their legislator," Sollo said. "We think open carrying is dangerous. Sooner or later one of these guys is going to do something stupid or an unfortunate accident is going to happen."
But Van Cleave, a former Texas deputy sheriff who said most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, stressed that restaurant and other business owners already can bar weapons from their businesses if they choose. He said his members respect those choices and are advised to "politely leave" if asked.
The league's Web site includes a list of so-called "gun owner unfriendly" businesses and restaurants, including The Bungalow, that do not allow weapons.
Officials at the Richmond-based Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association, which represents restaurants statewide, said the group has opposed efforts to allow concealed weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol but took no position on Howell's proposed legislation.
Danny Mitchell, the association's executive vice president, said that while openly carried weapons may make some patrons uncomfortable, any potential problems are more likely to be avoided if employees and customers are aware of a weapon.
"It's a dangerous combination to have weapons in places that serve alcohol, and if everybody knows it then people can deal with it beforehand," Mitchell said.
Mike Stollenwerk, the man who was asked to leave The Bungalow that March evening, says he ordered a mineral water and it was his wife who had the margarita. Moreover, he said he often openly carries his weapon in restaurants and "if people feel uncomfortable I've never noticed it."
Stollenwerk said his wife likes the food at The Bungalow but they won't be back. "There's no reason for me to spend my money there," he said.