In the safe and quiet Washington suburb of McLean, VA, community tensions are running high following a gun store’s decision to relocate next to Franklin Sherman Elementary School during the course of a busy and hotly-contested election season.
The controversy began on Sep. 26th, when NoVA Firearms moved to its new location adjacent to Franklin Sherman Elementary School, from its old location three blocks away. This new location was not the gun store’s first choice, as months prior, its owners attempted to move to Arlington, in a location away from schools and parks, only to witness their efforts thwarted by politicians.
As this story unfolds, new information has come to light detailing how an engineered campaign to create controversy for political gain has derailed efforts to broker compromise, ultimately backfiring on the politicians who raced to exploit the situation.
Among the chief offenders is incumbent Democratic Supervisor John Foust, whose Dranesville district includes the gun store at the center of the controversy. Despite knowing the store was in compliance with the law before it opened, Foust chose to politicize the issue in an effort to drive up voter turnout in an off-year election while smearing his opponent with false attacks.
Prior to Foust and his allies polluting the public discourse with their partisan politics, the store owners had been willing to work with community groups such as the McLean Citizens Association on finding a mutually-agreeable new location. Now, thanks to Foust and his allies, the store has no plans to move, and no plans to engage with the politicians using them as political scapegoats.
As a result of Foust’s election season rhetoric, the gun store will remain next to the school.
This controversy began on Sep. 25th when Foust and his allies learned that NoVA Firearms would be opening next to Franklin Sherman Elementary, on the very next day, Sep. 26th.
According to Fairfax County email records obtained by Bearing Drift under a Freedom of Information Act request, School Board member Janie Strauss relayed news of the store’s opening to Foust at 10:28 AM on Sep. 25th. Shortly thereafter, Foust began investigating the store’s legality.
That evening, at 7:38 PM, John Foust emailed an issue briefing to local Democratic leaders, summarizing his research into the legality of the store’s placement and Fairfax County’s prior approval of its non-Residential Use Permit (RUP).
“The reviewer did not give anyone notice that a gun store was moving into McLean, but it also appears they did not know,” Foust explained in his briefing. “However, from a zoning standpoint, they would have issued the non-rup whether they knew it was guns or not because they have to.”
The store’s non-RUP had been issued two weeks earlier in accordance with zoning classification C-8, which broadly permits “retail sales” – the correct classification for a gun store. As Foust explained, the permit was granted because the county lacked any legal basis to deny its issuance.
“State law pretty much prohibits the county from regulating guns,” said Foust, as he attached a verbatim copy of Va. Code § 15.2-915 in the group email to Democratic leaders.
On the day before the store’s opening, John Foust knew the county lacked legal options, but he didn’t let that stop his re-election campaign from exploiting the situation for political gain.
“I will join you at the protest,” Foust closed, as he began preparing for the morning’s political fray.
From the beginning, Foust repeatedly and personally attacked the store’s owners and landlord, stating, among his other attacks, that they lacked “decency and respect” while calling them “antagonistic to our community.”
Meanwhile, Foust’s supporters wasted no time in following the antagonistic example he set. One supporter, Victoria Manoogian, organized a boycott of the landlord’s business – not the gun store – while posting the landlord’s home address on the Internet, opening the door for harassment.
“Strategy first,” said Foust’s ally Kathleen Murphy, a State Delegate from McLean, to a group of Democratic leaders planning their course of action.
For Foust and his allies, this effort to amplify conflict and smear his opponent served a purpose.
By garnering media attention, distorting facts, and inflaming passions, Foust hoped his campaign could capitalize upon a wedge issue to rescue his campaign from its sagging poll numbers. Foust had to energize his base and drive up voter turnout if he were to have any hope of victory.
Foust knew that criticism of his record of not delivering much-needed funds for traffic congestion relief and public education was costing him votes. Foust needed to strike back, and in the campaign’s final stretch, any false attacks he launched would be difficult for his opponent to rebut.
In the gun store controversy, Foust had found exactly what he needed.
Among Foust’s allies, Senator Barbara Favola was explicit in her call to engineer an election-ready conflict for the benefit of Foust. Prior to moving next door to the school, NoVA Firearms had attempted to move to Arlington, until Senator Favola stepped in and led a charge of her allies, who threatened landlords and businesses with boycotts, just as Foust’s supporters did in McLean.
The following email exchange detailing Favola’s suggestion to inflame a “we versus they” conflict was obtained by Bearing Drift in response to a FOIA request sent to Fairfax County.
In this email, Senator Favola expresses her desire to instigate a nasty fight for political purposes, believing said fight is “now winable [sic].”
Favola offers no consolation to the small businesses caught in the crossfire of engineered conflict, which, as she explains, is “bad for business.” In true political form, she deflects responsibility away from her own instigative actions, heaping blame instead upon the gun store and the landlord, pitting them against neighboring business owners as part of a political divide-and-conquer strategy.
NoVA Firearms wouldn’t be next to a school in McLean today had this group of politicians not blocked its move Arlington. Unlike the majority of concerned parents who oppose this gun store in its current, specific location next to a school, this group opposes gun stores in any and all locations, and would readily oppose NoVA Firearms if it attempted to move elsewhere within their districts.
Foust’s antagonism continued while his re-election campaign dragged on. Not content to limit his rhetoric to photo opportunities and TV interviews, Foust flooded the mailboxes of district voters with false and misleading junk mail attacking his opponent for adopting a more pragmatic plan of action.
One of John Foust’s mail pieces sensationally claimed:
Jennifer’s debate statement began by noting the factual background of the store’s legality – of which Foust was aware one day before the store opened. In summarizing the situation, Jennifer stated, “these small business owners have done nothing illegal. They are in compliance with all state and county regulations. They got permission from the county to make the move from their previous location which was just a few blocks away from their current location.”
Citing the same set of legal facts which Foust knew from weeks earlier can hardly be classified as a “defense” of the store. However, Jennifer didn’t stop there. Continuing, she added:
“So I think now we’re at a point where we have to talk about as adults and as leaders what can be done. I believe that it is the role of leaders at any level to calmly address how we balance the fears and concerns of the parents with the legitimate rights of the business owners, and so therefore I commend the MCA for the action that you took recently to appoint a small group to work with all parties to quickly propose a solution to address concerns on both sides, and I think that’s the only reasonable thing to do. That’s what we must do, and as a leader, that’s what I would have done. I know John has already addressed that there are very few things really that can be done at the county level other than addressing potentially some zoning changes. So here’s where I disagree with the way that my opponent has handled the situation. I believe it is the role of elected officials to do something about solving the problem, to de-escalate the situation and work with both parties to come to resolution. It is not the role of our elected leaders to publicly insult law-abiding business owners, and in my opinion, to fan the flames of an issue and only make worse the fears of the parents for political gain. And that is absolutely not what I would have done…..My opponent says he’s working to find resolution, he has not met with any of the business owners, he has not talked to the MCA, this has been all talk and no action, and it’s time for action, and I can tell you that if I had been the supervisor of this district it would not have gotten to this point to begin with.”
Chronis’s call for a level-headed discussion stands in stark contrast to Foust’s antagonistic rhetoric. She has publicly joined with the MCA in calling for working with all parties to reach a resolution, whereas Foust, through his rhetoric, has alienated the store’s owner and landlord, making impossible any chance of cooperative relocation.
Days later, Foust doubled down on his deception with another false and misleading mail piece.
Foust’s sensationalist imagery is deliberately calculated to inflame voters as his struggling campaign seeks to drive up turnout among his political base, despite his messaging being out of touch with the vast majority of concerned parents. Most in opposition question, in their opinion, the store’s appropriateness in comparison to other retailers they believe shouldn’t operate near schools, such as liquor stores, tobacco shops, or adult bookstores – but stop far short of Foust’s implication.
Even among the store’s opponents, fears of the store directly causing a Sandy Hook or Columbine style massacre, as is implied by Foust’s sensationalist imagery, remain well outside the mainstream opinion.
Foust continues by citing a statistic produced by Bloomberg front group Everytown for Gun Safety which claims, “There have been 45 school shootings just this year alone.”
While even one school shooting is one too many, exaggerated statistics and hyperbole interfere with reasonable discussions of public policy concerning school safety and violence prevention.
Politifact agrees, rating the methodology of the statistic used by Foust as “Mostly False” when Everytown for Gun Safety first published it in 2014. Everytown’s recycling of the same methodology one year later doesn’t make their exaggerated claim any less misleading. In examining its integrity, Politifact concluded, “The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.”
The real victims of Foust’s false and sensationalist campaign are the citizens of McLean, who now struggle with amplified political conflict brewing in their community. After being on the receiving end of personal attacks, boycott threats, and political venom, the store’s owners are ready to stay put, with no plans to move, and no plans to engage in a conversation with the politicians who used them as punching bags during election season.
Because state law protected the store’s right to operate, its opponents had exactly one method to move it away from the school: earn the cooperation of the store’s owners following a constructive dialogue and community efforts to find a new location.
Those efforts have been spoiled as a direct result of Foust’s inflammatory rhetoric and false attacks.
As the old proverb goes, one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. The McLean Citizens Association (MCA) understood this when it voted on Oct. 7th to to study the issue and initiate a community effort to help the store find a new location with the cooperation of the store’s owners.
MCA President Jeff Barnett understood this challenge when he voted in support of a constructive process, after reminding the crowd of the store’s legality and compliance with zoning law. “We have a challenge without an easy solution,” remarked Barnett, according to reports from Inside NoVA.
“It is absolutely legal,” added MCA board member Sally Horn.
The bottom line is this: Supervisor John Foust ignored multiple opportunities to exercise bipartisan leadership and seek a win-win compromise for all parties involved. Instead, he chose to politicize the issue, score cheap points by launching false attacks on his opponent, and stoke the fires of controversy to boost voter turnout. As a result of Foust’s inflammatory rhetoric and personal attacks, the gun store in question has dug in its heels and doesn’t plan to move.
Concerned parents should direct their outrage to John Foust for knowingly and willingly politicizing the issue to boost his re-election campaign, and in the process, derailing attempts at constructive dialogue and compromise.
Parents who oppose the store’s current location may be stuck with a gun store next to an elementary school, but on Nov. 3rd, they need not be stuck with the inflammatory partisan politician whose election-year antics spoiled attempts to broker a community compromise.