Up in Arms
Many local residents bristle at the thought of a gun store in their neighborhood. But Arlington is already home to more guns than some may realize.
Protesters outside NOVA Firearms in McLean. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley.
Susan Newton never intended to become an anti-gun activist. But when gun retailer NOVA Firearms announced plans to open a store in Cherry-dale this past May, she found herself conferring with neighbors and attending meetings about the shop’s potential impact.
A short time later, Newton launched a Change.org petition opposing the store, arguing that its intended location at the corner of Lee Highway and North Pollard Street was too close to H-B Woodlawn and five other schools. Students walk past the strip mall on their way home every day.
With lockdown drills now standard practice in classrooms—a protocol that Arlington Public Schools teacher Launa Hall described as “rehearsing for death” in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post—having a gun store in the community would send the wrong message, Newton’s petition argued.
“I don’t think I’m saying to people in Arlington, You can’t have a gun,” says Newton, who lives in Donaldson Run. “But I think that [having a gun] is very different than having a [gun] shop. I don’t have an ability to shield my kids from that influence.”
As Newton’s petition racked up nearly 2,700 electronic signatures, the National Rifle Association responded with a counter-petition in support of the store. But
NOVA Firearms owner James “J.B.” Gates (who was looking to relocate from a smaller retail space in McLean) ultimately lost his bid when the landlord conceded to pressure and cancelled the lease.
NOVA Firearms owner and U.S. Marine Corps veteran J.B. Gates at his store in McLean. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley.
“People did come in and say they would not come back” if a gun store opened [next door], says Chuck Kipp, owner of Sterling Picture Framing, whose shop would have shared a wall with NOVA Firearms.
John Nicholson, whose flower shop, Company Flowers, would have shared the opposite wall, worried that a gun store would inhibit the pedestrian traffic that he and other merchants rely on from surrounding neighborhoods. It just wasn’t the right “fit,” he says.
Annie Moyer, director of the Sun and Moon Yoga studio down the street, says she believed NOVA Firearms would have followed the letter of the law on age restrictions and safety precautions inside the store. But she feared the parking lot might become a transaction point for private gun sales, as well as a political staging ground for those inclined to assert their Second Amendment rights by openly carrying assault-style weapons.
“When there are guns in your community,” Moyer says, “it is no longer a safe place to be.”
The thing is, Arlington already has its fair share of guns. National Pawnbrokers on Lee Highway (located roughly a half mile east of NOVA Firearms’ intended spot in Cherrydale) has sold used guns legally for years. Three Arlington high schools have rifle teams that are virtually unknown and get little play in the local media. Capital Defense Instruction, a firearms academy headquartered one block from the Clarendon Metro, offers training classes several times a week. Many of its courses sell out weeks in advance.
And there are plenty of average citizens packing heat. Over the five years ending in 2014, more than 4,100 residents of Arlington and Falls Church applied for concealed handgun permits (aka “concealed carry” permits), according to data collected by Arlington Magazine from the Circuit Court of Arlington County, which also handles gun permit applications for the City of Falls Church.
In 2013, the Circuit Court received 1,100 concealed-carry applications—a marked increase over the 800 or so it receives in an average year, according to Circuit Court Clerk Paul Ferguson.
Why the uptick? Ferguson thinks the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 may have had something to do with it. “We were getting a lot [of applications] in the winter of 2013 because there was talk of [tighter gun control] restrictions,” he says.
It isn’t hard to get a concealed-carry permit in Arlington. To do so, an applicant must provide a certificate of handgun competency, proof of residence, a notarized application and a $50 fee.
“There’s a 20-question online test that you can take to prove competency,” says Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and an Arlington resident. “You can carry a firearm without ever having fired it or showed proficiency.”
Community activist Susan Newton outside of NOVA Firearms’ thwarted Cherrydale location. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley.
By law, the court has 90 days to review a concealed permit application, though most are processed faster than that. “The vast majority are approved,” says Christopher Falcon, civil division supervisor of the Circuit Court.
Indeed, a review of 886 concealed handgun permit applications filed in Arlington in 2012—the last full year such records were publicly available—finds only 10 that were denied. Of those, eight were rejected because the applicant had submitted to the wrong court. Of the other two, one applicant was denied because he failed to provide proof of competency with a firearm (which he could provide if he reapplied). The other application (in this case, to renew an existing permit) was denied because the applicant had been “charged with felony attempted malicious wounding for allegedly shooting at someone,” according to court records. Permits must be renewed every five years.
And yet, concealed weapons permits only paint part of the picture where local gun ownership is concerned. Permits aren’t required to carry a firearm openly in public, nor are they required for those wishing to buy or keep a gun at home—meaning the number of guns tucked into nightstands, home safes and garages around town is likely higher than court records indicate.
Of course, having a concealed handgun permit is not the same as using the permit. Before Heather Pizzamiglio moved to Arlington in 2012, she lived in D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. A single mom with two kids, she worked near NASA’s headquarters in Southwest D.C.—an area that turned into a ghost town after hours. “There were women who had been attacked there early in the morning,” she recalls. “Anytime after 6 p.m., the whole feel of the area changed.”
Taking steps to feel less vulnerable, Pizzamiglio moved her family to Arlington, bought a 9-mm handgun and received her concealed weapons permit. “Having a weapon on me was something I thought I’d need,” she says.
But she soon discovered it was easier to leave the gun locked up at home. In Arlington, many privately owned stores and restaurants prohibit guns on the premises—even if they are concealed—and customers carrying concealed weapons cannot legally drink alcohol at bars. Guns also are not allowed in schools or on school property, other than in cars during drop-offs and pickups. And though Virginia has reciprocity agreements with more than two dozen states allowing Virginia permit-holders to carry guns in those states, Maryland and the District of Columbia are not among them. Meaning Pizzamiglio couldn’t carry on her way to and from work.
“I just had the permit. I did not carry at all, actually,” says Pizzamiglio, who has since moved out of the area. “I was more afraid of breaking the law unintentionally by driving into Maryland [than I was of potential attackers].”
Still, there are those who say they just feel safer with a firearm close at hand. “I’m not going to leave my child motherless without a fight,” says Marcia Burgos-Stone, who lives in Columbia Forest with her husband, an Arlington County police officer, and their 13-year-old daughter.
Gun ownership is not a responsibility she takes lightly. “I’m very comfortable with my gun. But that’s because I go to the range often and practice,” Burgos-Stone stresses. “If you’re in a live situation where you need to use your gun, you have to have good muscle memory because your fight-or-flight response takes over.
When I go to the range, I practice shooting with both hands. I draw. I reload the magazine. I take steps backward as I shoot. It’s important to be prepared. If all you know how to do is pull the trigger, then you shouldn’t carry a gun.”
Though Burgos-Stone also has an alarm system on her house, she’s not the only one who sees guns as an important second line of defense. Whereas only a quarter of gun owners nationwide in 1999 said they owned guns for protection (back then, a much larger number reported using firearms for hunting), the ranks of those buying guns for safety jumped to 48 percent by 2013, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.
Fear of terrorism is certainly a factor, but perhaps so is local crime. In Arlington, guns were used in 141 robberies from 2010 through 2014, according to Barbara Scott, a crime analyst with the Arlington County Police Department, as well as in 69 other violent incidents—a category that includes offenses such as murder, rape and aggravated assault.
Arlington boasts lower crime rates than many other D.C.-area jurisdictions, but that isn’t stopping certain residents from taking precautions.
“I don’t want to be the guy cowering under a table with my kids and hoping things will work out in an active shooter situation,” says Rock Spring resident Brad Winkelmann, a former police officer who now works in real estate. “The day that I had my children is basically the day…that I started carrying everywhere I go.”
Nia, who asked not to use her last name, grew up in the Bronx and remembers always having a gun in the house (her father was ex-military). Back then it made her uncomfortable, but her thinking has since shifted. “I have a permit [now] because I’ve learned more about gun safety and using it for self-defense,” she says.
Nia doesn’t carry much, but that’s partly because her husband, Max, does. Max was raised in a rural area where guns were viewed as a source of security, as well as a civil right. “[It’s] a feeling of wanting to be self-reliant, independent, sort of a good Boy Scout, you know? ‘Always be prepared,’ ” he says.
Nevertheless, Max feels there’s a stigma associated with guns in Arlington. Although permits are not required for open carry, you don’t see many locals wearing their guns in plain view while walking the dog or waiting in line for a latte.
Winkelmann, who owns several Glock pistols, doesn’t like to advertise that he’s armed. “I am absolutely, 100 percent, anti-open carry,” he says. “I think it serves no purpose. All it does is alarm people.”
James Nida, an NRA-certified gun trainer who works as chief of security for a company in Arlington, takes a similar view. He feels that carrying openly, while lawful, is “unnecessary.” In certain situations it could even prove detrimental, he says—for example, if you’re unfortunate enough to be a bystander at the scene of a crime and are presumed (by citizens or police) to be one of the perpetrators.
The issue of gun visibility may have been what ultimately kept NOVA Firearms out of Cherrydale.
Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley.
“Part of the gun culture has become very in-your-face,” says Horwitz. “When you open carry, you’re making a statement [that carrying guns is normal]. I think the people in Arlington are saying, ‘This is not normal.’ ”
At the same time, he says, area gun owners and non-gun owners aren’t completely polarized in their views. “I think there is some cohesion in Arlington. The majority of gun owners aren’t interested in flashing their weapons. People are trying to be responsible. There’s a consensus of safety first.”
Safety has certainly been a priority for local schools in the wake of Sandy Hook. In 2013, Arlington Public Schools (APS) hired Kevin Reardon, a former Arlington County police captain, to fill the newly created position of APS security coordinator.
Since then, schools have ramped up the presence of school resource officers (SROs), on-site security cameras (which can be remotely monitored and mapped by first responders) and radio communications that allow school staff to communicate with police in an emergency. Building security improvements focusing on features like locks and door placement are also ongoing, Reardon says.
Schools conduct lockdown drills at least twice a year (in September and January), per state mandates, says Cintia Johnson, APS assistant superintendent for administrative services.
And while Arlington has never encountered an active-shooter scenario on school grounds, school officials say they are constantly paying attention to incidents that play out elsewhere and adjusting their emergency plans accordingly.
Outside of school, some parents practice similar vigilance by asking whether there’s a gun in the house before sending their kids to friends’ homes for playdates.
NOVA Firearms isn’t the first gun seller to face opposition in our area. In 2014, residents of Arlington’s Nauck neighborhood pushed back when the SpecDive Tactical gun shop (which has a store near the Mixing Bowl in Alexandria) announced plans to open a second location about a block from the historic Green Valley Pharmacy on South Shirlington Road.
Josh Karrasch, owner of The Gun Dude café, a “firearms boutique and coffee shop” that sells everything from shotguns to semi-automatic pistols, was similarly thwarted by neighbors when he attempted to open his first location in Del Ray in 2014. (He later found a home for his business on West Broad Street in Falls Church.)
To Del Ray gun store opponents, it mattered little that Karrasch, a former Navy medic, emphasizes gun safety and strives to facilitate dialogue on issues like gun control. Argued one recent guest blogger, a gun owner, on The Gun Dude website: “The Second Amendment is not infringed by requiring sensible training, background screening and licensure.”
Gun owner Brad Winkelmann. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley.
Studies confirm that this view is becoming more mainstream. Some 85 percent of Americans now favor expanded background checks, according to an August 2015 report issued by the Pew Research Center. Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) support laws preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns, and 70 percent support the idea of a federal database to track all gun sales.
Winkelmann counts among a growing number of gun owners who see prudence in measures like waiting periods, competency tests and stricter background checks.
“It seems like the pendulum is always swinging to one side completely or the other side,” he says. Perhaps there is a middle ground.
Gun sellers, meanwhile, are continuing their search for literal ground—specifically, neighborhoods that won’t try to run them out of town.
After losing his bid to open in Cherrydale, NOVA Firearms owner J.B. Gates relocated his business from its original spot on Elm Street in McLean to a larger storefront, just a half-mile away on Chain Bridge Road. He’s since received several visits from protesters.
At issue is the fact that the shop’s parking lot abuts the backyard of Franklin Sherman Elementary School. Many school parents say they were hoping for a more family-friendly business, such as an ice cream or coffee shop, to occupy the building that until recently housed an artist’s portrait studio. (A Change.org petition launched in opposition to the store now has more than 2,600 supporters.)
“We don’t want [a gun store] near our children in school,” says Richard Evans, a father of two school-aged kids, one of whom attends Franklin Sherman. “This seems to be too close to be reasonable.”
In a September press statement, Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust acknowledged that NOVA Firearms had every right to occupy its new location, but called the move a “shocking lack of judgment” on the part of Gates and the landlord.
Gates nevertheless did a brisk business on the first day, serving about 75 customers. Some went out of their way to stop by and show their support, he says, buying small items like ammunition or gun-cleaning kits.
Like Karrasch, Gates offers basic firearms classes and issues certificates of completion that participants can use to apply for concealed handgun permits. He says he’s also looking into offering personal safety classes in the use of mace, Tasers and other non-lethal weapons.
On the matter of gun control, however, he maintains a hard line. “Universal background checks [are] a stepping-stone to gun registration in Virginia,” he says—something he believes most gun-owners in the Commonwealth, himself included, will not tolerate.
In November, Gates attempted to lease a second space in Falls Church and was again met with protests. (That deal is currently in limbo as a result.)
In January, picketers returned outside of his McLean store after a burglary in the weeks before Christmas resulted in two stolen handguns.
He’s still hoping to find a place in Arlington—a market he considers prime territory. Though his store has always served hunters and hobbyists, along with a few “preppers” (people who think the apocalypse is coming), “our biggest, biggest clientele is federal, local and state law enforcement and military,” he says.
He thinks an Arlington shop near the Pentagon would serve those buyers well.
G. Stephen Thurston teaches journalism at Montgomery College in Rockville and lives in Arlington.