The yellow, steeple-roofed gun store in McLean sits right behind a local elementary school, where one classroom looks out into its parking lot. Inside the new shop, the proprietor sells high- powered weapons and handguns with the ammunition to match.
That has a group of local parents seeking to persuade the store to move, worried that its proximity to a school sends the wrong message to children.
Several dozen local residents staged a protest as the shop celebrated its opening 10 days ago, holding up signs and encouraging community residents to sign a petition that might convince the owners that they are not wanted in the wealthy Northern Virginia community.
“I feel like it’s going to become very, very ugly,” Barbara Quesada, whose 6-year-old daughter attends Franklin Sherman Elementary School, said of the growing controversy.
While President Obama and members of Congress grapple over how to react to the mass shooting at an Oregon community college last week, officials in McLean are facing their own debate over the rights of gun owners.
Gun enthusiasts are rallying behind the store’s owners, pointing out that the store has the right to be there and poses no threat to the community.
Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust, whose Dranesville district includes McLean, said he wants to persuade the owners of Nova Firearms to move somewhere else.
The business, which operated at another site in McLean for two years, relocated near the school after residents in nearby Arlington County kept them from setting up shop there earlier this year.
Foust said Nova Firearms has the legal right under the county zoning ordinance to operate on the quiet Chain Bridge Road commercial strip that includes an auto repair shop, a bank and a spa.
But “just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it,” he said.
Barring any code violations or other problems that could force Nova Firearms to shut its doors, Foust said, “I’d be happy to work with them to find a location that would not have the consequences that this particular site has. Whatever it would take to solve what is a very bad situation.”
Monday at Nova Firearms shop, which sits in a community that is home to the Central Intelligence Agency and near the National Rifle Association’s Fairfax City headquarters, co-owner Rachel Dresser shared her frustrations over the controversy.
“I don’t want to be painted as the villain,” Dresser said. She added, however, that she and co-owner James Gates have no intention of leaving the site because another move so soon would be prohibitively expensive.
The owners bought Nova Firearms last year, operating across from the McLean post office with no problems until a need for more space prompted a search for a larger site, she said.
They tried a site in Arlington County but were forced to abandon that project after residents convinced the property owner to nullify their lease.
The gun store owners settled on a former photographer’s studio near the Franklin Sherman school that is about one-half mile from their former home.
Dresser said the new site is convenient for many of their customers, among them law enforcement officials, hunters and single mothers.
Plus, she added, it is in an area of McLean zoned for that kind of business.
Dresser said her business conducts federally and state mandated background checks on every customer and offers gun-safety classes for adults and children.
“If I had done anything, even like, shady, you know, giving a gun to somebody I shouldn’t . . . poof! Gone,” she said, about her operating license. “I have to run a background check on everyone.”
Outside, the gun store — a three-story converted house with wide front windows — looks more like a place where a real estate agent would set up to sell some of the million-dollar mansions that adorn McLean’s leafy neighborhoods.
But in an era in which mass shootings frequent news headlines, the building has become a magnet for the volatile debate surrounding gun-control laws in the country.
Online, gun enthusiasts and opponents have used the gun store controversy to advance their views, sometimes in hateful ways.
One angry commenter shared the address and other personal details of a woman who started a petition against the store’s presence.
“Maybe I’ll stop by and pick up some ammo,” another commenter wrote.
The veiled threats have scared some Franklin Sherman parents. Several, not wanting to be publicly identified, expressed sorrow that the their children must learn “lock down” drills at school to know what to do in case of a mass shooting.
Those concerns are complicated by the fact that many McLean residents probably carry guns, said Jane Strauss, a county school board member who represents the area.
“We have parents who work at the CIA, parents who are high-level government officials, who work at Fortune 500 companies,” she said. “We are full of people who know intimately the problems and challenges of the world.”
Vance Gore, PTA president at Franklin Sherman, said many parents are disturbed by the possibility that someone looking to do harm might be mistaken for a gun store customer.
He cited a Virginia law that allows guns to be carried in the open if a person is 18 or older. With that law in place, having a gun store in the neighborhood “blurs the line of distinguishing friend from foe,” Gore said.
Gore said parents are also conflicted over how the controversy itself will affect their children, particularly if it draws attention away from the positive aspects of a thriving school.
With two children at Franklin Sherman, Gore said, he is unequivocal about his own stance.
“The last place I want to be is between a gun owner and the Second Amendment,” he said. “But the first place I would want to be is between anyone who would hurt my children or other children at that school.”