Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

Citizens Defense League of Virginia protests at Colonial Heights AutoZone
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Dec 17, 2012, 15:23

photo by Caitlin Davis A protester stands on outside of the AutoZone in Colonial Heights on Saturday.

Protesters bearing signs reading “Honk for Liberty” and “Fire a Hero?” were also bearing arms as they lined the Boulevard in Colonial Heights on Saturday morning.

The guns some of the people assembled outside the AutoZone wore on their hips were complemented by the bright orange stickers reading “Guns Saves Lives” many of the protesters wore on their chests.

The protest was organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and was planned in reaction to AutoZone’s recent decision to fire an employee the protestors say is a hero.

“We’re here because a few weeks ago, an AutoZone employee saved his manager’s life during an armed robbery,” Philip Van Cleave, President of VCDL said. “An armed robber came into the store, was holding a gun to the other manager and was trying to get him to open the safe and so forth...this guy managed to sneak out the back, run to his car, grab his Glock .40-caliber hand gun and brought it back into the store and stopped the robbery.”

Devin McLean, the former employee, was fired from the store in York County, Virginia, shortly after the Nov. 16 robbery due to AutoZone’s zero tolerance policy against employees bringing their own weapons into the workplace. The story garnered widespread attention.

Van Cleave said firing McLean was “totally uncalled for” and said McLean did not have to do what he did, which Van Cleave said was saving the lives of people in the store

“They claim they have a zero tolerance policy and we call that a zero intelligence policy,” Van Cleave said. “Zero tolerance just doesn’t work. Situations happen sometimes and you have to look at the situation and make an exception for it.”

In a statement, Ray Pohlman, media contact for AutoZone, said that the decision to fire McLean was the result of a long-standing policy aimed at ensuring safety in the chain’s stores.

“The safety of our AutoZoners and our customers is AutoZone’s first concern. That is why AutoZone, like most national retailers, forbids employees from bringing weapons into the workplace.

You may have heard about a recent incident in one of our stores where an AutoZoner was terminated for violating our company’s long-standing weapons policy.  The outcome in this incident did not result in harm to either AutoZoners or customers. Unfortunately,  there have been similar situations where employees have introduced weapons in the workplace and somebody was injured.”

Van Cleave argued that McLean did not try to play police officer and did not run after the robber. He said that McLean simply showed his handgun to deter the robber from potentially harming those in the store.

“This [protest] brings awareness that AutoZone did the wrong thing,” Van Cleave said. “And it’s really pointing the finger at AutoZone, the company and their policies. In America, we cherish our heroes. We don’t fire them.”

Brian Tyler, of Hanover, was amongst those standing on the Boulevard to show support of McLean on Saturday morning. Tyler wanted the protest to bring awareness to the general public that guns are not the issue.

“I am a firm believer in the Second Amendment and I am a firm believer that it is my God given right to be able to defend myself,” Tyler said. “I just want the general public to realize that carrying a gun isn’t a bad thing; used in the right person’s hand, it can be a very useful tool.”

Tyler said the holstered gun on his hip represented another lesson.

“I don’t want everyone to see a gun as a bad thing,” Tyler said. “They see us out here, they see we’re not causing problems. We’re out here for a good cause.”

The statement from AutoZone said that a weapon should never be taken out during a robbery, telling employees that all confrontation should be left up to law enforcement.

“That is why most law enforcement officials and safety experts agree that confrontation of criminal suspects increases the risk of harm to employees and customers. There is no amount of money in the cash register or merchandise in our stores that is worth more than your safety and the safety of our customers. You have been trained on how to react should you find yourself in a robbery situation.  Give the robbers what they want. Stay calm. Be observant of physical appearance, distinguishing marks and clothing – anything that can help police identify and apprehend the suspect.”

Van Cleave said that his view of such situations is different.

“See our view is very simple, you have a right to defend yourself,” Van Cleave said. “You get one life, and again, what this person did was end [the attempted robbery] perfectly. People say you need to leave that stuff to the police. Well see there were no police there when he did it.”

As drivers passed the AutoZone, some honked their horns and waved, Van Cleave acknowledged the tragedy the had occurred just 24 hours before, when Adam Lanza opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, killing 20 children, six adults and then himself.

Van Cleave said Saturday’s protests, which took place at AutoZone stores in both Colonial Heights and Hopewell, were planned prior to the Connecticut shooting, but said he thought that tragedy tied in with the concept of self-defense, the message behind the protest on Saturday.

“Unfortunately for those poor little children, the children couldn’t have done anything about that, but the adults could have,” Van Cleave said. “The schools are gun free zones. The same thing that happened in the mall in Oregon, that was a gun free zone, the theatre in Colorado, that was a gun free zone. All these gun free zones is where these massacres happen with these big body counts. So our organization is all about people having the means to protect themselves wherever they are.”

Van Cleave said the situation might have unfolded differently had the teachers been able to carry guns.

“If some of those teachers had been armed, maybe just maybe, those children would’ve never been killed,” he said.

The protesters all wore black arm bands in memory of the lives lost the day before in Newton, Conn. One protestor, Stan Bailey, of Petersburg, held up a big poster for VCDL and said he was there for McLean.

He said that if he had been a customer at the time of the robbery, he would’ve been appreciative of McLean for potentially saving his life.
photo by Caitlin Davis Brian Tyler, left, and Stan Bailey, right, stand on the Boulevard in front of AutoZone in Colonial Heights protesting the Nov. 16 firing of an employee who showed a gun during a robbery at his AutoZone branch in York, VA.

“When you have a robber that comes in with a loaded handgun, you are at his mercy,” Bailey said. “You’re at his will.”

Even though many of the other protesters around Bailey were sporting handguns, and one protestor even had a rifle in a backpack, Bailey said that he didn’t particularly like firearms, but sees them as a necessity.

“He never used it,” Bailey said of McLean’s gun. He just went in with a firearm and the criminal element retreated, he left. A mere show of force that will deter that kind of crime. Do I like guns? not really, but it’s a necessity. There is a necessity.”

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