As Congress struggles to find ways to control gun violence, across the river in suburban Virginia, people are arming themselves as never before. They not only want to pack pistols, but also to conceal them as well.
Over the past three months, thousands of gun owners have sought to take advantage of a new state law eliminating most restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.
The rush to arms suggests that even as national leaders search for ways to stem handgun violence, there is at least a public perception that the problem is growing worse--with a greater number of Americans arming themselves in self defense.
It also suggests that steps to curb handgun crimes, such as the 1993 Brady Bill requiring a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases, have not succeeded in reassuring a number of fearful suburbanites.
"It's unfortunate in this country that you have to resort to this," said Phillip Morales, who received a concealed-weapons permit under the new law.
Morales and his wife, Kathaleen, were attacked in 1993 by two men trying to steal the couple's car outside a Manassas, Va., post office. Morales managed to fight them off, suffering bruises as he did.
The men were convicted and given sentences of one year and five years. Shortly afterward, concerned that friends of the two men would try to retaliate, Morales applied for a concealed-weapons permit. But his application was denied under provisions of the law then in effect. Now he has a permit to carry his 9-millimeter handgun.
If people are out to kill you, they probably will succeed, he concedes. "But if you have a gun, at least you have an opportunity to defend yourself. It gives you peace of mind, but it may be a false sense of peace."
Virginia State Police say 2,356 concealed-weapons permits were issued over the first eight weeks that the new law was in effect, more than double the previous rate of about 1,000 in two months. Thousands more applications are pending.
Nine other states have taken similar steps this year to relax concealed-weapons restrictions, bringing to 28 the number of states that allow most adults to carry weapons out of view, according to the National Rifle Assn.
In Virginia, most of the new applicants live in the Washington suburbs of the northern area of the state, where obtaining a concealed-weapons permit was especially difficult under the old law.
"The only thing this new law is doing is affecting northern Virginia," said Ernie Lyles, owner of Gilbert Small Arms Range Inc. in the Washington suburb of Springfield, Va. Under the old law, "you basically couldn't give a reason" sufficient for a permit in the communities near Washington, he said.
In previous years, applicants needed to show a "demonstrated need" why they should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon.
Under the new law, the "demonstrated need" language was dropped, opening the door to nearly anyone who can show he or she has taken a gun safety course or knows how to use a gun--by virtue of military training, for example.
In suburban Fairfax County, which has more than 850,000 residents and the highest median household income in the nation, about 10 people a year applied for permits under the old law, said Jim Crabbe, a detective with the Fairfax County Police Department. In the first two months after the law changed, "we've taken in a little over 1,500," Crabbe said.
The only people automatically barred from getting permits are convicted felons, those convicted of more than three misdemeanors, substance abusers and those who received in-patient care at a mental institution within the past five years.
Janice Byer, 45, a Washington librarian who lives about 25 miles west of the capital, said she sought a permit so she could feel safe. "I intend to use it not daily but when I go out at night."
Byer has reason for her fear. She recently witnessed a carjacking in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center, and in 1969, while a student at UCLA, she was assaulted and robbed.
Tom Green, 53, a high school physics teacher who lives in the Mt. Vernon area south of Washington, said he sought a concealed-weapons permit so he would feel safe when he goes to "areas where local law enforcement can't always give protection."
Green said he learned a valuable lesson about guns in 1963, when he was growing up in Wisconsin. At the time, motorcycle gangs in the Chicago area were stopping people on the road and robbing them. So he drove with a loaded revolver on his seat.
He was, in fact, stopped by a gang once. When they saw the weapon, he said, they let him go.
Lyles, the gun range owner, who expects many more people will request permits in the months ahead after they complete gun safety courses, has stopped taking reservations for the courses he offers because they are booked almost until the end of the year, as are others offered in the area.
Virginia police say it is too soon to gauge the effects of the new law, but worry it will lead to an increase in the number of gun owners and more accidents.
"I've been carrying a gun for 30 years," Loudoun County Sheriff John Isom said. "It's tempting to come home and put it on your dresser."