On July 2, Fairfax County police received a 911 call from a Champps restaurant in Reston. Six men are seated at a table, the caller said. They're all armed.
Dispatchers quickly sent four officers to the scene. The officers were "extremely polite" and were hoping that some of the men were in law enforcement, said Sgt. Richard Perez, a spokesman for the police department. None was.
The men told the officers "they were just exercising their rights as citizens of the commonwealth," Perez said.
Turns out, packing a pistol in public is perfectly legal in Virginia. And three times in the last month, including at Champps on Sunset Hills Road, residents have been spotted out and about in the county, with guns strapped to their hips, exercising that right.
In the first episode, at a Starbucks, Fairfax police wrongly confiscated weapons from two college students and charged them with a misdemeanor. Police realized their mistake, returned the guns and tore up the charges the next day. Police commanders have since issued a reminder to officers that "open carry" is the law of the land in the Old Dominion.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization of thousands of Virginia gun owners, said members were involved in all three police encounters. But he said there was no coordinated campaign to start packing heat publicly.
"It was probably more of a coincidence, but not completely," Van Cleave said, noting that word of the improper confiscation spread quickly among members through e-mail. "This is a good opportunity to educate people. We have this inherent right, and not many people exercised it."
In Virginia, as in many states, carrying a concealed weapon requires a permit, issued by a local court. But no permit is required to simply wield a gun in the open, a right reinforced by a state law that took effect July 1. Not so in the District and Maryland, unless you're a police or federal officer.
Fairfax police are baffled by the sudden display of weaponry but assume it was done to make some sort of statement.
"Crime is at 20-year lows in the county," Lt. Col. Charles K. Peters pointed out, even though the population is soaring. The county's homicide rate was the lowest in the nation last year among the 30 largest jurisdictions. "Hopefully no one feels the need to carry a gun, lawfully or unlawfully," Peters said. "But there's no question it is lawful to carry a gun on the street. So we've had to ensure that all of our officers are updated on the nuances of Virginia law that allow citizens to carry firearms in public places."
Although legal, it is disconcerting to some people.
"This just shows you the extreme nature of what they're trying to do," said Bob Ricker, head of Virginians for Public Safety. "You don't want to go to Starbucks or Reston Town Center and see somebody with a firearm strapped on," he added, referring to two locations where armed patrons were found. "It's just something that I think is completely unreasonable. We all understand the concept of self-defense. . . . But when you're talking about Fairfax County, you have to look at what is reasonable."
The first incident, at a Starbucks on Leesburg Pike near Tysons Corner, might have inspired other gun owners to carry openly. It began shortly before 10 p.m. June 14, Perez said, with a complaint from a citizen. Police arrived to find a 19-year-old man carrying a .22-caliber pistol and a 21-year-old man with a 9mm pistol.
Perez said an officer spoke with the men, then took their guns and charged them with possession of a firearm in a public place. Virginia law 18.2-287.4 expressly prohibits "carrying loaded firearms in public areas."
But the second paragraph of the law defines firearms only as any semiautomatic weapon that holds more than 20 rounds or a shotgun that holds more than seven rounds -- assault rifles, mostly, Van Cleave said. Regular six-shooters or pistols with nine- or 10-shot magazines are not "firearms" under this Virginia law.
The day after the arrest, the officer consulted with a county prosecutor and determined that "he had erred," Perez said. He summoned the two men to the McLean District station, returned their weapons and dropped the charges.
Van Cleave said word of the incident, along with news of a similar incident in Richmond, spread through the defense league's e-mail alert system. "I think people were saying, 'I think I do want to open carry,' " Van Cleave said, though he added the league neither encourages nor discourages the practice.
Carrying weapons openly was not unprecedented locally, Van Cleave said. He said that the defense league has a monthly meeting in Northern Virginia with 25 to 30 members and that most go out to dinner afterward with their sidearms openly visible. "We've had 40 people open carry, in a restaurant, with no problem," he said.
Three days after the incident at Champps, a married couple were walking their dogs down Market Street, the busy thoroughfare in the heart of Reston Town Center, about 3 p.m. In addition to pistols on their hips, Perez said, both the man and woman were carrying an extra magazine of ammunition. An officer spoke with them and was informed that they were members of the defense league and were aware of the Starbucks incident. Perez said the officer took no further action, although Van Cleave said a lieutenant arrived and urged Town Center security to eject them.
Managers at the Starbucks, Champps and Town Center all declined to comment.
Van Cleave said the gun owners might have been out celebrating a law that took effect July 1. Virginia statute 15.2-915 now completely prohibits any locality from enacting any regulations on gun ownership, carrying, storage or purchase, except for rules related to the workforce. Alexandria, for example, had an ordinance prohibiting openly carrying guns. It is now invalid, Van Cleave said.
"It's like the Fourth of July," Van Cleave said. "A whole new set of freedoms came in. . . . All local gun control is completely and totally gone."
Legislators said they passed the bill to eliminate duplicative regulations, particularly in counties such as Fairfax, which imposed its own gun permit process in addition to the federally mandated background check.
Openly carrying weapons is "not a good idea," said Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. "This is the gun lobby's vision of how America should be. Everybody's packing heat and ready to engage in a shootout at the slightest provocation."
Ricker said the gun owners "are probably doing their cause more harm than good by raising this issue. It raises an awareness and gives people who are more rational thinkers the opportunity to go to their legislators and make their views known."
Van Cleave said most gun owners, particularly defense league members or concealed weapon permit owners, are law-abiding. Anti-gun forces "have come to think guns themselves are evil. You've got to worry about the person, not the gun."