Politics & Government

Gun crackdown continues in Texas

Since Texas law changed Jan. 1 to allow the open carry of handguns, the Fort Worth Zoo has put up signs that say neither concealed nor open carry of handguns is allowed.
Since Texas law changed Jan. 1 to allow the open carry of handguns, the Fort Worth Zoo has put up signs that say neither concealed nor open carry of handguns is allowed. Star-Telegram

A long-promised gun law crackdown is underway in Texas.

But gun owners aren’t the target.

Government entities that wrongly prevent handguns from coming onto their property — in Tarrant County and beyond — are.

“Local governments have been prohibiting for years where they are not supposed to,” said Terry Holcomb, executive director of Texas Carry, who has been working with the attorney general’s office on the issue. “These [complaints] aren’t going to be forgotten about.”

Laws enacted last year give Texans more gun rights — and more ways to protest when they believe they are being wrongly prevented from carrying their weapons.

Now the Texas attorney general’s office is deep into investigating nearly 60 complaints filed, including at least four in Tarrant County. So far, the office has mostly determined that signs preventing open or concealed carry on certain government properties violate state law.

That’s good news for gun-toting Texans like Holcomb, who say they just want to know for sure where they may legally carry their handguns.

“Nobody wants to get arrested,” he said. “We believe we can carry in certain places lawfully, … but it’s a third-degree felony” if they are wrong.

“Everybody is unsure.”

Texas law has long stated that local governments may not ban licensed Texans from carrying handguns in their facilities, except in certain weapon-free zones such as courtrooms, schools and rooms where government entities are meeting.

But until last year, there were no penalties for agencies that wrongly posted signs banning guns at their facilities.

Now, Texans may send written complaints to the state questioning signs they believe are improperly posted. Officials review complaints, determine whether they are valid and, if signs have been determined to have been wrongly put up, local government officials have to remove them and let licensed Texans carry their weapons there — or pay a fine every day until they do.

This was a key element of the Republican agenda in the last legislative session.

Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas

“This was a key element of the Republican agenda in the last legislative session,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “This is [Attorney General Ken Paxton’s] job. It’s also in his political interest.

“He was elected by the Tea Party wing. … That is the element of the Republican Party most interested in these Second Amendment gun rights.”

Statewide, there are 966,222 active licenses to carry handguns. Nearly 70,000 of them are in Tarrant County, Texas Department of Public Safety records show.

“This promises to remain an issue throughout the election season — if guns can be carried safely, why aren’t they allowed in courthouses or at the Republican National Convention?” asked Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “These kinds of questions will continue to be asked as the attorney general evaluates the implementation of the laws.”

License To Carry Instructor Cassie Shockey talks about gun safety tips.

Local concerns

At least four of the current 57 complaints being reviewed involve Fort Worth facilities, according to data compiled by the attorney general’s office.

The city attorney’s office has been contacted about three of the local complaints — two against the Fort Worth Zoo and one against the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History — but has yet to hear about the fourth, regarding a temporary sign posted last year at the exhibit halls in the Will Rogers Memorial Center.

They have responded to one complaint, regarding signs preventing handguns posted at the museum. There are five such signs at the building, which houses the Omni Theater and the museum school, said Rebecca Rodriguez, the museum’s director of marketing and communications.

“The museum has a ground lease with the city but the building itself is owned by the Museum of Science and History,” said Gerald Pruitt, deputy city attorney for Fort Worth. “The city didn’t put up a sign there, never has.

“The museum owns the building, and they put up a sign,” he said. “If private property rights in Texas don’t mean anything anymore, then they shouldn’t have put up a sign.”

The city is also in the process of responding to the two complaints filed against the Fort Worth Zoo, regarding signs that prevent open and concealed carry of handguns at the state’s oldest animal attraction.

The Fort Worth Zoo, founded in 1909, was owned and operated by the city until 1991, when the Fort Worth Zoological Association assumed management of daily operations under a contract with the city.

Fort Worth Zoo officials say they may prevent guns on the property because the zoo was designated a daycare facility last year by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Zoo officials say they have the ability to prevent guns on the property because the zoo was designated a day-care facility last year by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Some disagree with that stance, saying the privately run zoo is on city-owned land, so it should be fair game for Texans legally carrying handguns.

Wilson said she knows that the attorney general’s office is reviewing the zoo status but noted that nothing has changed at the zoo.

“We are licensed as a day care,” said Alexis Wilson, the zoo’s communications director. “Included in the licensing provisions are restrictions against weapons.

“Firearms are prevented in the child care center — all buildings and grounds within zoo boundaries, the full 64 acres.”

The city attorney’s office has yet to be asked by the attorney general’s office about the fourth local complaint, regarding the exhibit halls in the Will Rogers Memorial Center, a city facility.

The center and exhibit halls are often leased to private businesses. This complaint was filed in mid-September after a gun show operator posted signs banning license holders from carrying loaded weapons into the gun show.

“We don’t put up signs at Will Rogers,” said Pruitt, the deputy city attorney. “Signs at Will Rogers are put up by people who lease the facility from us.”

Pruitt said he hopes for some clarification regarding government-owned buildings that are leased out.

I can figure out when we can put up signs. What’s our responsibility when someone else puts up a sign?

Gerald Pruitt, deputy Fort Worth city attorney

“It’s really this issue of what responsibility do we have when a third party puts a sign up,” he said. “That’s the troublesome part of that. I can figure out when we can put up signs.

“What’s our responsibility when someone else puts up a sign?”

New law

Last year, lawmakers last year approved Senate Bill 273, by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, to let any Texan file a complaint about signs believed to wrongly restrict concealed handguns on government property.

Private property owners have the right to restrict guns. But licensed Texans can carry guns on most government properties, with exceptions including certain meetings and court hearings.

“While these bills were under debate in the Legislature, it was clear there was substantial opposition in the public and people would comply as much as they had to and keep gun-free zones where they could,” SMU’s Jillson said.

Now that the new law is in effect, any time a complaint is filed, the attorney general’s office reviews it and determines whether signs are wrongly posted. If they are, any entity that doesn’t remove the signs will be fined for every day they remain posted — $1,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for any offense after that.

So far, 10 rulings have come out of the attorney general’s office.

In several cases — in cities such as Abilene, Austin, Melissa, Mineola, Pasadena and Tom Bean — city workers removed questionable signs when the attorney general’s office began investigating the complaint.

Elsewhere, the Brazos County Courthouse, the Dallas County Government Center and the McLennan County Courthouse have been told to remove or change their signs.

The Dallas Zoo, an amusement park larger than 75 acres, was told signs preventing handguns on the property could stay.

And the Dallas Zoo, by virtue of being considered an amusement park larger than 75 acres, was told the signs preventing handguns could stay.

Officials in Fort Worth and Tarrant County worked to review signs posted at government facilities before the law took effect, trying to make sure all signs are appropriate and up to date. Signs at various facilities, including the county administration building, were removed and replaced.

Workers made a list of signs posted at attractions ranging from golf courses to community centers, working to replace signs as needed.

Holcomb said he filed a number of the complaints now being reviewed by the attorney general’s office. And he has a number of additional complaints he plans to file next week.

“We don’t want to carry where we are not allowed to carry,” Holcomb said. “But we need this to be settled.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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