- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

Virginia lawmakers probably will have at least one controversial gun bill to dispose of in next year's legislative session.

A study commission is trying to add restaurants to the places where permit holders can carry concealed weapons. Current law prohibits concealed weapons in all restaurants with alcohol licenses.

Those who want the law changed talk about the dangers of leaving guns unattended in cars while they are inside eating. Opponents imagine a scene from the Wild West with saloon-style shootouts.

At its root, the debate is similar to the broader gun debate, with both sides seeming to talk around the other side's arguments.

One side says there is just no reason to have guns in places such as restaurants, and they worry about the people who carry them. The other side says it's their right and argue that carrying a concealed weapon keeps the individual and those around them safer.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, who is heading the study, said the key is to find a good distinction between alcohol-intensive restaurants and ones where alcohol is more incidental to the establishment.

"If we come up with a definition, we'll probably have legislation. If we can't, we won't," he said.

Judging by this past legislative session, those who favor gun owners' rights have the upper hand. Playing defense, they managed to block several attempts to restrict places where concealed guns may be carried. But whether they can also play offense and loosen restrictions is anyone's guess.

Some who oppose changing the law say it's useless to try to make a distinction between drinking establishments and "nice restaurants."

"Quite honestly, it's not a nice restaurant for me if I know somebody's packing heat," said Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat.

Jim Wordsworth, who owns J.R.'s Stockyards Inn in Tysons Corner, said he doesn't think it would be a problem at a nice establishment like his, but he can see a problem in restaurants that mix music, men and women, alcohol and guns.

"A gun is a higher level in a way of solving an argument. Absent a gun, you have rough fellows and some arrests but no fatalities, probably," said Mr. Wordsworth, a past president of the Virginia Restaurant Association, which wants the law to stay as it is.

But Paul Moog from the Northern Virginia Citizens Defense League says the majority of permit holders are in their late 30s or 40s and are upstanding citizens.

Besides, he says, if they have gone through the process and been deemed acceptable for a concealed weapon permit, they should be able to carry their gun where they want.

They also point to the law before 1995, when it was tougher to get a permit, but those who did weren't kept from carrying them in restaurants. There were no recorded mishaps, they say.

Many who carry handguns now just take off their jackets to expose their guns when they go into a restaurant. Only concealed guns are illegal by law.

State Police Lt. Robert G. Kemmler said that as of July 5 there were 88,371 active permits issued by the courts or given to retired law-enforcement officers under a provision in state law.

In 1996, 25 permits were revoked; in 1997, 68 were revoked; in 1998, 35 were revoked; and last year, 53 were revoked. From 1997 to 1999, nine of those permits were later reinstated.

Police don't track how many of those revocation were for someone who misused a gun.

Opponents of changing the law point to an incident two years ago in which Drug Enforcement Administration agents went to a bar in Hampton Roads, had a few drinks and then went into the parking lot and fired their guns.

One alternative comes from Speaker of the House S. Vance Wilkins Jr., who said the law should simply prohibit anyone who has been drinking from carrying a gun rather than defining restaurants.

But Mrs. Byrne scoffed at that idea.

"Do you have a designated gun toter?" she wondered, giving another take on the concept of designated drivers.

Mr. Wilkins' proposal would at least avoid another collateral issue that of bars, something Virginia currently doesn't allow.

Tom Lisk, the lobbyist for the Virginia Restaurant Association, said a new definition dividing restaurants between family establishments and those that draw a larger percent of their income from alcohol sales could raise the question of allowing concealed weapons in bars.

He said the restaurant association is split on that issue.

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