Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

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Diane Gross is eagerly waiting for her sign to be finished. The ones available on the internet aren’t tasteful enough for her boutique wine bar and market on 14th Street NW. They have giant red letters that read “No Firearms Allowed,” coupled with a picture of an exed-out gun. 

“We’re doing it on a chalkboard so it’s integrated into our space,” says the Cork Wine Bar & Market co-owner. “There’s a balance because you don’t want people to be scared. You want to let people know they’re in a safe space and not freak people out. I bet 90 percent of people walking into restaurants right now have no idea.”

She’s referring to an October 2017 court order that softened gun laws in D.C. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit eliminated a law requiring those applying for a concealed carry permit to provide a “good reason” for having a gun in public. Rather than appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, Attorney General Karl Racine let the court mandate stand. 

While applicants no longer need a good reason, there’s still a rigorous approval process. Applicants must undergo firearms training and fingerprinting. The Metropolitan Police Department says they’ve approved 331 permits of the 874 applications they received from the date the mandate took effect through Feb. 8. An estimated 55 percent of permit applications have come from people who reside outside of the District, predominantly in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. 

“The scary thing is that it’s not necessarily people who live in D.C.,” Gross says. “It could be people outside of the area. It’s terrifying to think that someone can walk into your business with a gun on them and you not know it’s there.” 

Permit holders cannot carry their firearms everywhere. Certain places are off limits including polling places during an election, schools and childcare facilities, the immediate area surrounding the White House, and aboard public transportation. These restrictions are straightforward, but the regulations governing guns at eating and drinking establishments are befuddling, and confusion and guns don’t mix.

Under no circumstances can you bring a concealed gun into a tavern or nightclub in the District. Nor can you ever carry a firearm while drinking alcohol. However, restaurants are fair game, provided there are no posted signs prohibiting firearms on the premises.

A business’ Alcoholic Beverage Control Board license determines whether it’s a tavern, nightclub, or restaurant. A restaurant must make 45 percent of its gross annual receipts off of food, have its kitchen open until at least two hours before closing, and operate regular hours that are clearly marked with no barriers to entry such as a cover charge, among other stipulations. 

Restaurant licenses are only nominally cheaper than tavern or nightclub licenses. Depending on capacity, the annual licensing fee for a restaurant that has a full liquor license ranges from $1,000 to $2,600. For a tavern, that range is between $1,300 and $3,120; for a nightclub, $1,950 and $5,850. 

Operators may favor applying for a restaurant license because neighbors are far less likely to protest a restaurant than a tavern or nightclub that comes with associated risks like noise. There are also several liquor license moratoriums in place that limit the number of tavern or nightclub permits in a given neighborhood. For example, no new tavern licenses can be granted before September within 1,400 feet in all directions of the intersection of Belmont Road NW and 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan.

In practice, the difference between a restaurant and a bar is more nuanced. Some D.C. restaurants change costumes as the night drags on. They look and feel like a restaurant until the clock strikes 10 p.m. Then the space more resembles a bar or club

Masa 14, El Centro, and Provision No. 14 are all categorized as restaurants despite their reputations as nightlife destinations. Tiki bar Archipelago, with its strong drinks that make your legs wobble, is also classified as a restaurant. 

“We don’t stay open past 1 a.m., but a lot of these places with a restaurant license can stay open until 3 a.m.,” Gross says. “There’s not a lot of eating that’s happening then. There’s a lot of drinking that’s happening. Even a regular restaurant can have a dynamic drinking scene.” 

Andrew Markert, the chef and owner of Beuchert’s Saloon on Capitol Hill, agrees that the lines blur. “We’re a restaurant first, but we have a heavy bar scene,” he says. “It’s a hell of a loophole to have that just because we serve food, you’re allowed to carry a gun. That doesn’t sound right.” 

“There is still, to me, a little bit of a gray area around the types of alcoholic beverage licenses,” says Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger. As bar and restaurant operators caught wind of the dissolution of the “good reason” law, they began reaching out for guidance. 

“As we took on that charge to get more clarity, our concern rose a bit,” Hollinger continues. “When you don’t have clarity, it’s harder to give the options about how you can protect yourself as an operator.”

The central issue is the susceptibility to danger created by introducing guns into atmospheres where alcohol is served. “Most gun owners are law abiding citizens, but I don’t like the idea of alcohol and guns together,” Gross says. “It’s a recipe for something bad to happen.” 

Markert hasn’t decided if he’ll post a sign, but the chef made his feelings on guns known when he held a “Forks Up, Guns Down” event at Beuchert’s Saloon in July 2016 benefitting the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “I don’t think a restaurant is a place you need to carry concealed guns.” 

Consider what would happen if a general manager spotted a customer, three martinis deep at the bar, wearing a gun that’s only partially concealed. “How do you approach somebody with a firearm and tell them they’re not allowed to have it if they’ve been drinking?” Markert wonders. “Alcohol lowers inhibitions, I don’t want to put an employee in that situation. That’s scary, especially now that there’s no rule that you need a good reason.” 

Such a scenario puts the proprietor and customers in danger, according to Coalition to Stop Gun Violence legislative director Christian Heyne, a D.C. resident and survivor of gun violence.

“Are you liable for something that goes down after that if the person is upset and uses the weapon or if the weapon goes off?” he asks. “It puts an unfair burden on restaurant owners to have to become law enforcement.” 

MPD says restaurant staff should immediately call 9-1-1 instead of confronting a patron if they suspect they’re breaking the law by carrying a gun while drinking or carrying a gun at a nightclub or tavern. But now that there will be significantly more individuals with concealed carry permits, should the police expect to be deluged with calls? Not if D.C. is anything like Austin, Texas. 

“When concealed carry first came to the state, there was a lot of angst about people being able to carry firearms on their person,” says Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Frank Dixon. But the lines were not jammed with calls asking officers to respond to tense moments at restaurants. “We didn’t see any big spikes on things like that,” he adds. 

Amy Dillon has worked in the firearms industry for a decade and is an advocate for Second Amendment rights. She’s a shooting instructor, training consultant, fashion designer, and participant in The D.C. Project, a nonpartisan initiative that puts female firearm owners in front of legislators to share their stories. She currently lives in South Carolina, where she holds a concealed carry permit. There, you also cannot carry a concealed weapon while drinking alcohol. 

“If I plan on having a drink with dinner, I won’t carry,” Dillon says. She almost always opts to carry instead of imbibe because of the sense of safety her pistol provides. She thinks other gun owners are just as capable of being responsible, and doesn’t see a problem with patrons carrying concealed weapons in restaurants. 

“People who have permits, they’ve gone through training and a background check,” Dillon says. “There’s a process to make sure they’re a responsible citizen.” She emphasizes how important training is. “I’m not just talking about going to the range and learning how to use a gun—there has to be situational awareness and legal training … I focus on the responsibility of carrying a gun in public.” 

Complicating the issue is the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017, a federal law that, if passed, would allow individuals with concealed carry permits in other states to come into the District without undergoing the city’s stringent permitting process.

“In places like Virginia across the Potomac, you can watch a one-hour video and answer a short quiz and get your concealed carry permit,” Heyne explains. “States that don’t require permits for concealed carry would also be allowed to carry in the District.”

While Dillon points out that a sign on the door prohibiting firearms wouldn’t stop “a person with evil intentions” from entering a bar or restaurant, determining whether or not to post a sign is a high priority for District businesses. 

RAMW sent an email to its members with sample signs soon after the court order was issued in October. “We’re being proactive in making sure they have the information they need, but I anticipate more questions and concern,” Hollinger says.

“We need to double down on efforts to make sure proprietors know their rights and how to keep their establishment safe,” Heyne says. “We’ll have to do a much bigger push to make sure businesses know about it.” 

Some owners are fretting about the message the signs send and are thus trying to see if they can enlist their neighbors. “People are going to see the sign and think this place is shady,” says Erik Holzherr, who owns Church & State, Atlas Arcade, and Wisdom. He’s considering convening fellow H Street NE proprietors to devise a plan.

Markert would consider doing the same on Capitol Hill, but worries he might lose customers. “Some people don’t like to take a stand on those things considering how political the Hill tends to be,” he says. 

Hollinger thinks once more restaurants post signs, local dining will feel different. “It changes the culture around how people dine and why they dine,” she says. “It puts people more on edge, whether you’re a diner or an owner.” 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.