Guns in Restaurants Draw Stares but Little Outcry

By: Matthew Barakat
By: Matthew Barakat


RESTON, Va. (AP) -- The patrons at Champps, an upscale restaurant and bar chain, were eating ribs and drinking beer on a recent Saturday when customer Bruce Jackson stood up and made an announcement: He was armed, and so were dozens of other patrons.

The armed customers stood up in unison, showing off their holstered pistols and revolvers. Jackson said a word or two about the rights of gun owners to carry firearms in Virginia, then thanked everyone for their attention and sat down.

The diners returned to their burgers and Budweisers.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League organized the gathering at Champps to prove a point: that the presence of armed customers in northern Virginia restaurants would elicit little more than shrugs.

The Champps appearance - and several other restaurant visits throughout northern Virginia last month - were a response to comments from the majority leader in the state Senate, Democrat Richard Saslaw, who said armed patrons would be unwelcome in northern Virginia restaurants.

"In most urban areas, you walk into a restaurant with a gun on your hip, they're going to tell you to get out," Saslaw said.

In fact, with a few exceptions, the gun owners got their meals. The group went to eight different restaurants in April - including the Fuddruckers burger chain and the McLean Family Restaurant - and more often than not their presence failed to generate a stir. At two eateries, they were asked to leave.

All the restaurants were in Fairfax County, a bastion of suburbia and soccer moms outside Washington that is the wealthiest county in America, according to the most recent Census data.

"This is an area with a large population of government agents - FBI, CIA, local," said Champps' manager, Carey Vereen. "In terms of people seeing open carry, it's not a shock to our customers."

It is also a place where nerves over the gun debate are still somewhat raw a year after the shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were slain, including many from northern Virginia.

Gun owners in Virginia are allowed to carry firearms in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, as long as the restaurant permits it and they carry their weapon openly. Legislation to allow concealed weapons in restaurants serving alcohol passed the General Assembly this year, but was vetoed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Virginia is one of two states, along with Montana, that demands any arms be openly carried in restaurants that serve alcohol, according to the Web site opencarry.org, which promotes and monitors gun owners' rights. Eleven states ban guns altogether in restaurants that serve alcohol, while the rest make no distinction between open and concealed carry.

At Champps, several patrons failed to notice that so many customers were armed, even though dozens of gun-toting men and women had walked right past them.

Tomas Nolasco said he hadn't noticed the guns and didn't care as long as they weren't drinking, which they weren't. His wife was a little more concerned.

"There are families in here, children in here," Cathy Nolasco said. "It bothers me."

Dave Vann, a retired D.C. police officer and VCDL member who organized the restaurant visits, said the gun owners' presence make the restaurant more safe, not less.

Many of the men who carry weapons said people frequently just assume they're police or retired police.

At one restaurant - Mike's American Grill - the group had gone essentially unnoticed until a woman in her 20s with a satin-finished, stainless-steel revolver got up from her table.

The restaurant's manager spotted her and asked the group to either put the guns in their cars or leave. They left.

"When I saw the gun on her hip, I was like, 'What is going on here?'" said the manager, Gabba Kaye, who hadn't noticed the guns when the group of 20 checked in for their lunch reservation.

Kaye said he hadn't received complaints from customers, but that the weapons made him uncomfortable. He also said he had been warned by the restaurant's owners about the visit and instructed not to allow the group service while carrying.

Saslaw said he's not necessarily surprised that VCDL found restaurants in the region that would allow them to dine while armed. But he said that carrying guns is simply not normal behavior in this area.

"What normal person walks around with a gun on your hip? Something's wrong in your life" if you feel compelled to carry a gun as part of your daily routine, he said.

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