April 22, 2014

Arlington council bans guns, real or fake, at city meetings

Cries of “tyrant!” erupt when the Arlington City Council votes tighter restrictions on people approaching motorists when they’re stopped on a city street.

With his camouflage AR-15 rifle at his side, Thomas Ballard gathered with dozens of other gun-rights activists outside Arlington City Hall Tuesday to protest a city ordinance that they believe infringes upon their freedom of speech.

Arlington police were stationed outside the council chamber doors to turn away anyone who might attempt to bring rifles, shotguns, pre-1899 black-powder revolvers or replicas of those revolvers into the City Council meeting.

“We have no intention of allowing anyone with a deadly weapon into the council meeting,” police spokesman Lt. Christopher Cook said.

And when asked, Ballard and other Tarrant County Open Carry members voluntarily stowed their weapons in their vehicles before heading inside to speak.

Shortly thereafter, the council voted unanimously to ban weapons or simulated weapons from being brought into City Hall or other city buildings where public meetings are being held. All nine members were present.

State law already prohibits concealed handguns at governmental public meetings, but Arlington did not have an ordinance addressing the antique black-powder pistols, replica pistols or long-barreled guns that Texans are allowed to openly carry.

With recent visits from Tarrant County Open Carry members to City Hall, some city leaders had raised concerns about whether the display of weapons could cause residents to feel uncomfortable about attending or publicly speaking at meetings.

Some members had attempted to bring their guns into the council’s April 8 meeting.

Ballard said he carries his rifle in public to educate the public about their rights, not to scare them.

“The main reason for me to do this is to educate people about their rights and to get them used to armed citizens,” said Ballard, 28, a former Arlington resident.

“An armed society is a polite society.”

Open carry vs. public safety concerns

The weapons ban at City Hall wasn’t the only council action that the gun-rights group opposed.

The City Council also voted 8-1 Tuesday to add language to a city ordinance clarifying the types of exchanges that are restricted between motorists and pedestrians.

The ordinance prohibits people from standing on street shoulders, sidewalks, medians or other public rights of way to solicit jobs or rides, to distribute or attempt to distribute objects or to sell merchandise or services directly to people inside vehicles that are not legally parked.

District 3 Councilman Robert Rivera voted against ordinance revision because of freedom of speech concerns.

The crowd erupted with yells of “Tyrant! Tyrant!” after the vote.

The Open Carry group had asked the council to repeal the ordinance, which made it illegal for its members to hand out pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution or gun rights materials to passing motorists. Two group members received Class C misdemeanor tickets during a March 27 demonstration at Road to Six Flags and Collins Street near the stadiums.

City officials, including District 1 Councilman Charlie Parker, said the ordinance is about protecting the safety of pedestrians and motorists.

“They want us to open our streets up for a discussion area. If we were to do that then every panhandler in the Metroplex would be here and operating under the First Amendment,” Parker wrote to the Star-Telegram in an email.

“What is even worse is the fact that a high school student passing out flyers for a car wash to raise money for band or summer camp could also operate in the streets. If he were to get hit and injured it would make the city liable.

“This is not a subject matter issue. Constitutions, Bibles, or the Koran, it makes no difference. Public safety is the issue.”

Since 2010, 25 people have been killed and 464 people have been injured in crashes between vehicles and pedestrians, Arlington police records show.

But Ballard said he and other activists are not impeding traffic or acting unsafely as they pass out their literature to willing motorists.

“I don’t need someone to hold my hand all the time,” Ballard said.

Resident Kim Martinez spoke in support of regulating how pedestrians interact with motorists from rights of way after encountering the gun rights activists in north Arlington last Friday.

“A man approached my car to give me literature with a giant gun in his hand. It freaked me out,” Martinez said. “I oppose the fact that they can wave their guns around on busy intersections and frighten people.”

Arlington resident Warren Norred was among those in opposition to the ordinance who pointed out that charitable groups, firefighters, high school youth and others have collected money from motorists for their various causes for years without receiving citations.

“This is about open carry. You are trying to say it’s about safety but that is a pretext because you are not comfortable,” Norred said.

Firefighters are specifically allowed under state statute to collect charitable contributions from motorists during their Fill the Boot Campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Community concern

Open Carry members typically carry rifles, shotguns or the black-powder or replica pistols during their public demonstrations, which have been held in Arlington and other Tarrant County cities since last year.

Though part of the group’s mission is educating residents about their right to openly carry shotguns and rifles safely and helping the public feel comfortable around those who do, Arlington police said the sight of armed demonstrators along busy streets has caused community alarm in recent months.

Since Jan. 1, police have received 911 calls at least 26 times regarding people who are carrying weapons in public, Cook said.

Arlington police received at least eight of those calls last Friday when the group held another demonstration at Road to Six Flags and Collins.

The Star-Telegram reviewed some of the calls, which included a woman who told the 911 dispatcher that demonstrators were pointing guns at the motorists and “some of them are acting like they are shooting people.” This was causing motorists to run a red light, she said.

Another woman told a 911 dispatcher that the demonstrators appeared to be arguing and yelling at motorists.

“They are harassing the drivers. We feel threatened because they are standing in the roadway,” the caller was heard saying.

Arlington police did not interact with the group but monitored its activity using officers in unmarked vehicles and traffic cameras stationed around the entertainment district, Cook said.

“They were actively in the road,” Cook said. “We made the decision, while the ordinance was under review, not to take any enforcement action.”

Arlington police will begin enforcing the ordinance again, Cook said.

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