Norfolk and visitor with a holstered .45 are tangled in a Catch-22
By MATTHEW ROY, The Virginian-Pilot
© July 22, 2007
Chester Szymecki Jr. was waiting for some music to start at Harborfest when a sheriff's deputy approached.
It was a warm June afternoon, and thousands of people wandered on and off the tall ships moored around Town Point Park. Szymecki had come from Yorktown with his wife, their three children and two children from their neighborhood.
Szymecki had brought along something else, too - a .45-caliber handgun in a holster on his belt.
The deputy asked Szymecki whether he was a police officer. He said no. And then, he said, uniformed city police began closing in. They gave him a choice, he said: Leave the event or face arrest. When he tried to say that there must be a mistake, he was disarmed and led away, handcuffed, he recalled.
Szymecki was charged with violating a local ordinance that the City Council had passed in May, which set up rules to govern Harborfest. Among them was a provision banning handguns and other weapons.
There's just one problem: A few years ago, the General Assembly barred localities from enforcing laws governing the carrying of firearms. That meant state law prevailed. And in Virginia, "open carry" is legal.
Localities today generally do not have the authority to restrict guns, said Mark Flynn, director of legal services for the Virginia Municipal League. A state law last amended in 2004 says localities cannot adopt or enforce laws regarding the purchase, carrying, possession, storage, or sale of firearms.
Szymecki was given a summons and released. When he showed up for court June 22, the case was withdrawn at the request of an assistant city attorney.
The case has enraged the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group that has successfully challenged local gun restrictions around the commonwealth. Szymecki is a member. In the past the group has protested Norfolk's attempts to prevent the carrying of weapons in city parks.
Philip Van Cleave, the president of the league, says members plan to crowd the City Council chambers in protest at a future date.
The ordinance, he said, was "a huge mistake."
City Attorney Bernard Pishko said the city is not attempting to challenge the state law by imposing restrictions on handguns.
Pishko described the gun ban in the Harborfest ordinance as an oversight, a "housekeeping" issue. "This is one that we missed," he said. An ordinance governing Afr'Am Fest in May contained the same restrictions on weapons. Both ordinances were in effect only for the few days the events ran.
Pishko said his office has since advised police that "the only gun laws in effect for Norfolk are those in effect for Virginia."
Szymecki said the incident has changed the way he views the police. He said he plans to file a lawsuit and have a "neutral court" decide whether police violated his rights.
Matthew Roy, (757) 446-2540, firstname.lastname@example.org