Monday, July 19, 2004

Virginians who exercise their right to carry guns in public have been criticized — even ridiculed — in recent days by critics on the both sides of the Potomac. But many gun rights advocates, state lawmakers and residents point out that it’s much safer to shop, drive or walk along a street in Virginia than in the District, where handguns are banned and police just declared a “crime emergency.”

“Criminals don’t want to come up against somebody who is willing to protect themselves,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Mr. Van Cleave said Virginia also is made safer by people who carry concealed weapons.

“The idea there is the criminals don’t know who’s carrying a gun,” he said. “They don’t wish to mess with people much because they don’t know who will be able to defend themselves.”

Mike Stollenwerk, a Fairfax County resident and a permit holder, said being able to carry a weapon openly gives people a sense of security.

“It’s an insurance policy,” he said. “I’m not a statistician, but it makes people feel more safe when they have the right to carry.”

Virginia Delegate Mark L. Cole agreed that streets are safer when law-abiding citizens can arm themselves.

“Citizens have an inherent right to be able to defend themselves,” the Fredericksburg Republican said. “You can’t always have a policeman on every street corner to take care of you. Whenever you have a bunch of gun-control laws that prohibit people from carrying, the ones with the guns are the criminals. You wouldn’t be able to defend yourself.”

It’s always been legal for permit-holders to carry handguns openly in Virginia, but recent sightings of gun owners displaying holstered handguns has some people spooked. More than 20 states have open-carry laws; it is illegal to carry handguns openly in Maryland and the District.

Virginia state Sen. Janet D. Howell says she was surprised when a D.C. resident sent her an e-mail saying he won’t be crossing the Potomac into Virginia anymore because of the open-carry law.

“He feels that the District of Columbia is a safer place to be,” said Mrs. Howell, Fairfax County Democrat.

Crime statistics, however, indicate that Fairfax County is much safer than the District, even though the city has a fraction of the population of its southern neighbor.

From January through April this year, Fairfax County had four homicides while the District had 64. There were 189 robberies in Fairfax County compared with 1,214 robberies in the District, and 18 rapes compared with 100 rapes in the city.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey declared a “crime emergency” yesterday, allowing him to temporarily suspend staffing guidelines negotiated with the police officers union.

An NBC 4 online poll showed that 84 percent of the 4,880 people surveyed support the right of Virginia gun owners to carry in public.

Still, Mrs. Howell said she agrees with those who say guns in holsters pose a serious threat. She tried unsuccessfully to persuade the state legislature to ban guns from establishments that serve alcohol and vowed to try again next year.

“It’s pretty obvious that guns and alcohol don’t mix,” she said. “Having guns in places that sell alcohol puts the public and employees at risk. People don’t necessarily think straight when they are drinking.”

Mr. Cole sponsored the legislation that created uniform open-carry laws throughout the state, which took effect July 1. The new law supercedes ordinances in cities such as Alexandria and Falls Church, where it had been illegal to carry openly within city limits.

But some police officers aren’t aware of the law.

One Fairfax County officer recently confiscated guns worn by two persons at a Starbucks. When he realized his mistake, he called the men the next day and returned their guns and did not file charges, said Fairfax County Police Sgt. Richard Perez.

“Residents see people openly carrying handguns and call us, and we respond,” Sgt. Perez said. “We use instances like that to continue to educate all our officers on what the laws are.”

Mr. Van Cleave said there is nothing his group can do to ease the fears of a “small” group of people afraid of guns.

“We’re not seeing panic in the streets in Northern Virginia,” he said.

Mr. Van Cleave said his group does not encourage or discourage people to carry openly. However, his e-mail newsletter detailed the Starbucks incident.

“We alerted our members to that and people were pretty upset,” Mr. Van Cleave said. “People decided it was time maybe more people did open carry to ensure our rights and make sure the harassment stops.”

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