Philip Van Cleave, a slight, balding, 52-year-old computer programmer, chose beige corduroys to wear this morning, a blue tie and a white shirt with thin blue strips. And a gun to match the outfit.

Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, always carries a gun because you never know when you'll need it. But which one to carry and how can be complicated, he said, much like the dilemma a woman faces in accessorizing her outfit with the right shoes. Today, he picked a compact black .40-caliber Kahr pistol, slipped it into a special holster and dropped it in his front pocket.

Arriving for lunch at a Topeka's Steakhouse 'n' Saloon not far from his suburban home, Van Cleave confronted another choice, an annoying one. Because the restaurant serves alcohol, Virginia law says he can't carry a concealed weapon inside. He would have to wear it in plain view. So he chose a different holster, one that fits inside his belt, leaving the gun exposed. Then he sighed.

"It's a pain to re-conceal it. Sometimes you may have to literally do a striptease," he said. "Isn't it asinine that I even have to worry about that?"

He walked into the restaurant. No one blinked. "Smoking or non?" the waiter asked.

Van Cleave believes that every citizen should have the right to carry guns virtually anywhere, at any time, with no background checks, mandatory training or any other interference from government. "If I do something wrong with a gun, put me in jail," he said. "If I don't, leave me alone."

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and its 2,400 members have gone a long way toward achieving that goal in Virginia. In the last few years alone, the group has successfully sought out and helped strike down gun control ordinances throughout the state.

They fought to overturn a decades-old ban on guns in state parks. Then they went after gun prohibitions in city parks. Some cities, such as Radford, acquiesced within days, quickly painting over "No Firearms" signs. Others, including Norfolk, put up a fight before giving in. They've taken on libraries and Lowe's hardware stores so that gun owners can carry inside. They've boycotted shopping malls that bar guns, and they've published "gun unfriendly business" lists.

They sued Fairfax County and "won big time," Van Cleave said gleefully, to prevent officials from banning guns at recreation centers and county buildings. Thanks, in part, to the league, gun owners will soon be able to carry their weapons all the way to the terminal doors at Reagan National and Dulles International airports. And the group won't stop fighting until gun owners can bring their guns inside, right up to the metal detectors.

In the last few months, Van Cleave and other group members have been turning up in Northern Virginia with their guns, at restaurants and malls and a contentious Falls Church City Council meeting. The show of weapons was intended to test the resolve of city leaders who, in Van Cleave's view, proposed to "harass" gun owners by calling the police if they showed up with any gun, concealed or exposed, on city property. City leaders called it something else: intimidation.

This year, the league's top priority, as always, is to pass a law that would allow Virginia's 112,000 concealed weapon permit holders to carry their hidden guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, something they were allowed to do until 1995, when the concealed weapons law went into effect, barring it.

Van Cleave organizes group members to flood officials with e-mail, write letters to the editor and show up at rallies and protests. They spend hours at the General Assembly in Richmond listening to boring testimony while politely waiting their turn. Much of the time, their weapons are in plain view.

"All lobbyists can pack a room. They just pack a room with guns," said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, a group that favors some gun restrictions.

The Making of a Purist

Something of a night owl, Van Cleave likes to take walks around the lake in his subdivision around midnight. When he does, he "double carries" in case an assailant knocks one weapon out of his hand. It's not about fear, he said. "Who would do that if they were afraid? The word is preparedness."

While he was growing up in Illinois, the only gun in Van Cleave's house was his BB gun. When he was 15, just as the family was moving to Texas, his father died suddenly. The next year, his mother bought him his first gun, a .410-gauge shotgun, and his uncle would take him bird hunting and "plinking" cans. At 21, Van Cleave volunteered to become a reserve deputy sheriff in San Antonio and purchased his first .357 magnum Ruger service revolver.

From that experience, he learned that an assailant with a knife can cover 21 feet in 1.5 seconds, that a bullet can travel 1,500 feet per second. As a deputy, he said, he looked into the eyes of violent criminals and saw no soul, "like a reptile." In this law of the jungle, he said, his gun is the great equalizer.

"I know the odds are slim that I'll ever have to use this. But you've got one life," he said. "If it got into a life-or-death situation, the person without a gun would take themselves out of the gene pool. And I would carry on."

Van Cleave has never shot a gun outside the shooting range. He's never had to draw one. He's never been the victim of a crime "except when someone stole my radio." Since 1984, he's worked out of his home in a quiet, planned community with neighborhoods named Willow Glen and Duck Cove, writing software. He rarely goes out, he said, "except to the grocery store."

He compares carrying a gun to wearing a seat belt. "I have insurance on my house, even though I don't think it's going to burn down," he said. "Things can happen."

Van Cleave joined the league in 1995, a year after it was founded by a group of men incensed that Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North was turned down for a concealed weapons permit. At the time, under a 1942 law, judges could decide whether to issue a concealed weapon permit to private citizens, based on proven necessity and whether the person was "of good character."

When the league and other gun rights advocates got the law changed -- now anyone except a felon can apply for and get a concealed weapons permit -- Van Cleave began to carry a weapon at all times. "I felt naked without it," he said.

He also became a purist. The Second Amendment is critical, he came to believe. Legal experts argue over its meaning, but Van Cleave shares the view of gun groups that it establishes the right to defend yourself, to defend the country against outside attack and "to take back your country should it ever become a totalitarian state."

"We're not envisioning America being taken over anytime soon," he said. "But with al Qaeda, you never know. The citizens will probably need to secure their own homes and restore order until the government got back on its feet."

In his living room, Van Cleave proudly displays the 2004 Grassroots Organization of the Year award from the national Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. The league's command center, so to speak, is upstairs. In it, Van Cleave said, are the computers with which he scans the Internet to keep up on changes in gun laws, monitors chat rooms such as Packing.org and sends out weekly VA-ALERT e-mails to 3,500 subscribers. Sometimes, he stays up until 2 a.m. scrolling through news stories about innocents gunned down who may have been able to save themselves, he said, had they been armed.

Despite his citation, Van Cleave said he has no patience for what he calls the hypocrisy of national gun groups, who have not always supported the league's tactics. "If you can't exercise a right because you might offend someone or you're afraid someone will take it away, well, then you've already lost it."

The league has been scolded privately by national gun rights advocates for openly carrying en masse. Some league members showed up with weapons in full view at a September gun rights conference in Crystal City as the C-SPAN cameras started to roll. Conference organizers asked them to conceal or leave.

Joe Waldron, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, wrote in an e-mail that was later circulated on the Web that Van Cleave and league members threatened to turn the event into a "see the gun nuts wearing guns on their hips conference."

State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a former police officer and a gun rights advocate, and other lawmakers have warned the group that their "in your face" open-carry tactics may serve only to galvanize the opposition. "They are turning a smoldering spark into a raging fire right now as the state becomes more urban and less rural," he said. "That's a battle that they may be likely to lose."

David Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member, is a case in point. When Van Cleave and league members carried weapons to a recent meeting to protest a gun control proposal, Snyder became more determined to fight them.

"Everyone I talk to asks, 'What planet are you on?' They're astounded that people are free to carry guns into governmental legislative chambers. It's absurd," he said. "It's time that someone draws the line and said that's not going to happen. We're not backing down."

Although the league is visible and tenacious, its true power comes from the General Assembly, considered one of the most gun-friendly legislative bodies in the nation. Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who openly courted the National Rifle Association to win election, signed 15 pro-gun bills into law in the last session alone.

In two separate and largely unnoticed actions in recent years, lawmakers in Richmond overturned the right of cities and counties to make their own gun control ordinances. In 1987, lawmakers prohibited localities from making any new gun control laws. This year, they wiped out any gun regulations that existed prior to 1987. Gone was Alexandria's handgun ban. Gone was the 60-year-old Fairfax County law requiring a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.

On July 1, the latest "state preemption" law went into effect. Now, guns may be carried anywhere but in courthouses, schools, churches during services or on clearly posted private property. Concealed guns are banned in bars.

Van Cleave said the open carrying helps educate citizens and the police, many of whom did not know how liberal Virginia's gun laws are. When police stripped two young men of their weapons in a Starbucks near Tysons Corner in June, Van Cleave wrote memos to set Fairfax police straight.

Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), a league supporter, said the restaurant ban is "a stupid law. There's not one incident that I know of where someone concealed carried, where they get drunk and shoot up the place."

Outraged gun control advocates, however, refer to the proposal to end the ban as the "designated shooter" bill.

The National Rifle Association, with 100,000 members in Virginia, has not taken a position on the restaurant bill for the upcoming session. And it largely keeps its distance from the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

"I've never run into them. Never talked to them," said Randy Kozuch, the NRA's national director of state and local affairs. "I think they just want to stir it up."

Always Within Reach

Back from lunch and practice at a nearby shooting range, Van Cleave unwinds on his mauve sofa in his mauve living room amid silk flowers and tiny crystal tchotchkes. In the kitchen, his wife tends to the tiny papillon show dogs she breeds. They have no children.

Ironically, the one place you don't see a gun is in his suburban home. They may be locked away in his gun safe with its rapid-action pressure lock for quick opening in the night should an intruder break in. He won't say. He will tell you that one is always within reach and that each one is equipped with tiny dots of green-glowing radioactive tritium, the better to locate in the dark.

"Security," he said, "is 24 hours a day."

"If I do something wrong with a gun, put me in jail," says Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun group Virginia Citizens Defense League. "If I don't, leave me alone."Philip Van Cleave has always carried a gun since Virginia enacted its concealed weapons law. "I felt naked without it."