FAIRFAX, Va. – Some people are exercising their right to pack heat openly, baffling police in Fairfax County (search), a Washington suburb.
Police recently received a 911 call from a restaurant in Reston. Six men were seated at a table, the caller said. They were all armed.
Dispatchers quickly sent four officers to the restaurant. The officers were "extremely polite" and were hoping 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.
Packing a pistol in public is legal in Virginia. And three times in the past month, residents have been spotted out and about in the county, with guns strapped to their hips.
In the first episode, at a coffee shop, 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.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (search), an organization of 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.
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.
Fairfax police are perplexed 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 with the population soaring.
Packing pistols publicly worries 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. "It's just something that I think is completely unreasonable."
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.
Regular six-shooters or pistols with nine- or 10-shot magazines are not covered under the law.
Three days after the restaurant incident, a married couple were walking their dogs about 3 p.m. in Reston. 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 they were members of the defense league and were aware of the coffee shop incident. Perez said the officer took no further action.
Van Cleave said the gun owners may have been celebrating a law that took effect July 1. The statute bars any locality from enacting any regulation on gun ownership, carrying, storage or purchase. Alexandria, for example, had an ordinance prohibiting open carry. It's now invalid, Van Cleave said.