Driving south from Washington, 30 miles from the White House, motorists pass a sign that says there are 20 miles to go before Guns. Seven miles later, in the Burma Shave manner, another slightly larger sign says Guns. Thirteen miles more, just south of Warrenton, there is a long, squat store beneath much larger letters Guns.
The roadside site is Clark Brothers, sellers of rare guns, limited issue guns, in fact an array of handguns from the 19th-century derringer to the .44 caliber magnum, said to be most powerful handgun in the world. Behind a glass-topped counter filled with weapons that sell for $40 to $400, a framed photograph of Robert E. Lee and his Civil War generals is displayed. Nearby hangs a sign: "People Kills, Not Guns".
Clark Brothers says it sells 3,000 handguns a kyear.
Who buys these guns at Clark Brothers and other shops around the state, and under what controls, is a deep concern to some, a matter of individual freedom to others. It is a subject of perennial debate in the Virgina legislature, which has repeatedly buried gun control measures in committee.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), rural Virginia gun stores like Clark Brothers are the number one source of streetcrime weapons on the Eastern Seaboard between South Carolina and Massachusetts.
To buy a handgun, a customer simply shows a Virginia driver's license, fills out federal form 44-73 on which he denies being a felon lunatic or drug addict, and pays for the handgun of his choice.
A top Virginia law enforcement official, who did not want his name used for fear of angering the state's anti-gun-control Gov. John N. Dalton, said Virginia's reputation as a source of guns along the East Coast is "embarrassing".
Yet a gun purchaser in Virginia buys into the tradition of a rural, Southern state where many citizens regard gun ownership as a symbol of manhood and independence.
"In rural and Southwest Virginia great shooters are much admired and respected," says Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. "In the Civil War, Virginians made great troops because they were great shots. Gun-owning is a heritage among oldline Virginians."
State Del. Charles D. Dunford of Tazewell County goes further in explaining the Virginian and his love affair with the gun:
"My father did it (owned a handgun). My grandfather did it. They all grew up here in Southwest Virginia. All great Virginians.
"Keeping a loaded gun in the house is a way of life. It's the same thing as keeping fuel beside the stove, as keeping flour in the cupboard and food on the shelves".
The Virginia State Crime Commission last month stepped back from the handgun tradition and denounced the easy availability of handguns in the state which, it said, "contributes to a climate of fear and violence in our communities."
The commission called "alarming" state police figures showing that 229 persons were shot to death in Virginia last year with handguns, more than half of them by people the victims knew.
Federal Bureal of Investigation crime figures for 1976 show that 80 percent of the nation's murders involved friends, family or acquaintances.
The ease with which a handgun can be purchased in rural Virginia stands in sharp contrast to the District where the strictest hand gun law in the nation forbids sale of handguns to the general public.
Other East Coast states, including Maryland, have laws requiring a police permit or waiting period or both before purchase of a handgun.
But in only 20 of Virginia's 131 localities, including Alexandria, Fairfax and Arlington, are there ordinances requiring a police check and a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun.
The Fairfax ordinance, which calls for a 72 hour waiting period while police check the record of the gun buyer, was passed in 1964 following a murder in which a Fairfax man bought a gun at a county department store, drove home and killed his wife and three children.
Airlington County, one of the state's more politically liberal jurisdictions, require a five-day waiting period and proof of Virginia residency. But an attempt last month to toughen the county's law by requiring weapons training and police permit failed before it could be brought up for a public hearing.
At Clark Brothers gun Shop, gun sellers and gun buyers contended that handguns laws have nothing to do with crime. The laws, they said, are a personal attack on "God-fearing people" who know how to use their handguns.
John Clark, who has owned the gun store for 18 years, claimed his customer are largely Virginians addicted to handguns as a hobby. He said they buy and sell handguns just about every month, shoot targets on weekends use their handguns for home protection and neither shoot each other nor themselves.
"These are people who work for a living. They are not on welfare and they are not criminals," Clark said.
One of Clark's regular customers, a cross-country trucks, recently dropped by the store to dicker over the price of a nickel-plated .357 magnum pistol.
A resident of Lynchburg. Va., he said he owns 20 handguns. He started shooting a pistol on a farm when he was 12 years old.He has a new Colt pistol waiting in a box for his 6-month-old son when "he's old enough."
When he is driving his truck, he said, he carries a sawed-off shotgun in his cab and wears a .38 caliber automatic pistol in a hoster inside his right pant leg.
Criminals and other potential enemies of "decent" people would be far less willing to break the law if they knew the citizenry was armed, he believes.
"There are so many crazy people out there, you don't know what they'll do. But as long as you can buy firearms, I don't believe anybody can take this country over," he said.
The people who buy hand guns at the cash-and-carry guns stores in rural Virginia, howeever, are not all God-fearing, law-abiding Virginians, according to John P. Rowley, special agent in charge of the Washington office of Treasury's BATF.
"You could be an escaped murderer, provided you have a valid driver's license, and stop along the road to buy a handgun," Rowley said. "It is on the honor system and everyone knows that the criminals don't lie".
Rowley said illicit gun dealers from Northeastern states make regular gun runs through rural Virginia "where you can buy guns while you have the money faster than you can buy oranges."
Two years ago a New York City man was arrested in Virginia with 15 .25-caliber automatic pistols that he had bought in Virginia using 12 phony state driver's licenses, Rowley said. Such arrests are rare, he added, because of the laxness of Virginia gun laws.
Gun runners, according to Rowley, frequently come to Virginia with stolen out-of-state driver's licenses that they use in obtaining a Virginia licenses. The process involves paying a $9 fee, taking a simple driver's test and giving a fake address.
Rowley said that Virginia, unlike most states, simplifies the gun runners' deception by immediately giving them an official driver's license with an attached photo. Most states mail licenses to the applicant's address.
The whole procedure, sufficient in Virginia to buy a truckload of handguns, Rowley said, can take as little as a half hour.
Even without a Virginia driver's license, handguns have been obtained at rural gun stores. Federal agents said they had little or no trouble last year buying guns in 23 of the 78 Virginia gun shops they checked, even though they posed as out-of -state residents.
The stores, according to the agents, either ignored the law or arranged for fake purchases by Virginia residents.
"There never will be any gun laws in Virginia," Del. Dunford believes "because you have a General Assembly that understands that regulation of firearms would not do any good to reduce crime."
Bills to require statewide laws delaying of a handgun or state record keeping of handgun buyers have gone nowhere in the Virginia legislature in the last 14years.
"It's so difficult to talk about gun control rationally in a political context," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), who has twice failed to get out of committee a proposed bill to ban manufacture and sale of concealable handguns.
In last year's gubernatorial election, the two major candidates battle each other to prove to voters that they were not going to upset the state's gun-owning tradition. The winner, Dalton, was supported by the National Rifle Association, which has 30,000 members in Virginia. Dalton's antigue-control record, according to the NRA, is spotless.
Most Virginia politicians are against gun control. Of the State's 12-man congressional delegation, according to records of the National Council to Control Handguns, nine oppose and kind of gun control. One, Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., has shown support for "moderate" controls, and two, Reps. Herbert E. Harris II and Josepth L. Fisher from Northern Virginia, favor controls against inexpensive, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] barrelled "Saturday night specials."
Only Harris, out of the Virgina House delegation, supported an effort this spring by the Treasury Department to require that new guns carry serial numbers and that gun sellers keep quarterly records. The propose regulations were rejected this month by the House of Representatives on a vote of 314 to 80.
According to Rowley, there is strong evidence that a handgun law requiring delays and police [WORD ILLEGIBLE] reduces interstate transportation of handguns for crime. South Carolina, Rowley said, passed such law in 1975 and the supply of handguns from that state for street crime in the District and other cities has almost stopped."
Gun seller Clark, who says that about 10 percent of his business comes from young women to buy handguns for "peace of mind," claims the urban crime would be reduced if the people had guns and knew how to use them.
"If a burglar knows he'll be confronted, he'll think twice about breaking into somebody's house," Clark said.
But federal and local law enforcement officials do not agree that a gun in the house stops crime and protects home owners. Robert di Grazia, police chief of Montgomery County, says the only way a home owner can protect himself with his gun is if he keeps it loaded and takes it with him every time he answers the front door.
The National Coalition to Ban Handguns say a Cleveland study shows that between 1958 and 1972, those who kept and used handguns for protection shot and killed six times as many friends, neighbors and family members as they did robbers and intruders.
Confronted with arguments and statistics supporting handgun control the Lynchburg trucker said that "looking at it logically" there is reason to support a law that requires a delay in Virginia for handgun purchase.
"But I'm like a lot of people out here who buy guns often. I'm used to getting what I want when I want it," he said.