It seemed simple enough. Falls Church officials recently drafted a policy that would require city workers to call 911 immediately if anyone stepped onto city property carrying a gun. Police who responded would check to see if the gun was properly licensed and report their findings to city officials.
With all seven council members and many residents of this little city inside the Capital Beltway firmly in the anti-gun camp, only a few officials expected any problems with the procedures.
Think again. If the intent was to discourage gun-toting in the city, the effort has backfired.
About 30 people, pistols strapped to their hips, strode into the council's meeting this week protesting the policy and warning that it violates their constitutional right to bear arms -- and possibly state laws, as well.
The group was largely organized by Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun owners group, who drove up from his home near Richmond. He had hardly set foot in Falls Church before, but now, he vowed, the city "is going to be under a microscope."
"We weren't paying any attention to them until they did this," he said. "If they try to set some standard like this and we ignore them, then it's going to send the wrong message. . . . But if they violate state law, we are prepared to sue them."
The presence of so many pistol-packing citizens at Monday's meeting unnerved council members and, in particular, infuriated council member David Snyder, who denounced their brazen display of firearms as "intimidation" and attacked Virginia's recently enacted laws that limit local control over guns.
"It's particularly ironic that everyone on the state, federal and local levels are concerned about gang violence, and yet Virginia prevents local communities from acting against that very violence when guns are potentially involved," he said in an interview.
The debate underscores the political divide between Northern Virginia's urban communities and the conservative leanings of the General Assembly, which voted in 2002 to prohibit localities from enacting any regulations on gun use not authorized by the state.
Snyder and other council members say they are frustrated by state legislators in Richmond who seem to ignore their public safety needs when it comes to gun issues.
"It's an absolutely bizarre situation, where the citizens of Falls Church can't determine the levels of safety that they want on the facilities that they alone have paid for," Snyder added.
But gun advocates say the Falls Church policy assumes that people are doing something wrong just because they carry a gun.
Kelly Hobbs, spokesman for the Fairfax-based National Rifle Association, noted: "It's common sense to alert the proper authorities about any suspicious activity. But [Falls Church's] regulation doesn't address suspicious activities; it singles out anyone who is carrying a firearm. The concern is that law-abiding citizens will be unfairly targeted, and unnecessary strain will be put on law enforcement resources."
City Manager Daniel McKeever said his staff is combing through state and federal laws and is "legally scrubbing" the policy. Since it is an administrative policy for his staff, it does not need a vote by the council to be applied, he said.
The issue was prompted when a library worker asked McKeever in July whether people were allowed to bring guns into the library, he said.
"The policy simply says if somebody comes onto our property with a firearm, call the police," McKeever said. "If there's a violation, the police will make that evaluation. That's all we're doing. We're not trying to violate any laws that are on the books."
The sight of 30 people bearing arms at a council meeting was intimidating, several council members said.
"It was unnerving," said Vice Mayor Martha Meserve. She added: "Our staff is supposed to be on alert to look for suspicious activity, to look for terrorists, and now they're being told that if they question someone carrying a weapon, they are harassing people. You can't have it both ways."
At the same time, Falls Church's efforts will motivate gun advocates, said Van Cleave.
"It is going to backfire," he said. "It's perfect for my side. I'm going to go to the General Assembly. . . . What they are doing is not going to go over well with the legislators."