The message has long been clear at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Texans cannot pack heat when they visit the state’s oldest animal attraction, according to signs posted at the entrance.
But through the years, some lawmakers and open-carry advocates have questioned whether the zoo’s declaration is legitimate. The privately run zoo is on city-owned land, they argue, so that means it should be fair game for holders of concealed-handgun permits.
“The Fort Worth Zoo has always been in contention,” said Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Austin-based Texas State Rifle Association, noting that it’s hardly the only place in Texas where handgun-ban signs have caused confusion. “Over the years, the signs have popped up here and there.”
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Starting Tuesday, Texans have new recourse when they think such signs have been wrongly posted on government property.
“For the first time, individual citizens can write … and ask for an explanation of why the sign is there,” Tripp said.
And if the signs have been put up in error, officials must remove them and let licensed Texans carry their weapons.
As a result, city and county workers are reviewing, removing and replacing some signs that may have been put up two decades ago but violate current laws.
Officials at the zoo, however, say the law won’t alter its gun ban because the zoo received a new designation this year from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — as a day-care facility.
“This designation applies to all buildings and grounds within the zoo’s boundaries,” said Alexis Wilson, the zoo’s communications director. “As such, no weapons, including concealed handguns or openly carried handguns, may be brought into zoo buildings or onto zoo grounds.”
Everything is open to interpretation, said Jerry Patterson, a former state senator who shepherded the concealed-carry law through the Senate two decades ago.
“I’m not sure [the day-care designation] applies,” he said. “I’m not sure it doesn’t apply.”
But he said the law is needed so Texans can find out exactly where they can carry their handguns.
“These signs are everywhere,” Patterson said. “And many of the signs, frankly, have been up for 20 years and have just been forgotten.
“The goal of this is to stop people from breaking the law,” he said. “You are breaking the law if you falsely say something is unlawful when it’s not. Officials don’t get to make up the law to fit what they think it should be.”
Developing the law
This year, lawmakers 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.
It takes effect Tuesday, along with nearly 700 other new laws.
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.
If a complaint is filed, government workers will review the concern and remove any sign that’s wrong. If they don’t, they’ll be fined for every day the wrong signs remain posted — $1,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for an offense after that.
Supporters say the law will help reduce confusion about where guns can be carried. Critics say the measure is difficult — and potentially costly — to implement.
Some signs have been up for quite some time and they’ve just been overlooked.
Richard Zavala, director of the city’s Parks and Community Services Department
Many cities and counties will have a chance to review, update and remove outdated signs before licensed Texans are legally allowed to openly carry holstered handguns starting Jan. 1.
Tarrant County initially opposed the bill, said Mark Mendez, an assistant county administrator for governmental affairs.
“Our opposition had to do with the way the bill was worded, not necessarily the intent,” Mendez said. “At that point, it didn’t give the governmental entity any period of time to fix the problem.”
Once language was added to give government workers 15 days to fix signs, the county no longer registered opposition, Mendez said.
Tripp was among the bill’s supporters. She said the more than 850,000 Texans with concealed-handgun licenses “deserve to know where they can carry.”
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“For some reason, governmental entities were randomly posting these signs,” she said. “You just had to rely on cities and counties to do what the law said. There was no penalty if they didn’t want to.
“The signs have popped up in strange places.”
As the Tuesday deadline approaches to make sure all signs are appropriate and up-to-date, Fort Worth and Tarrant County employees are hard at work.
In Fort Worth, officials met with the city attorney’s office to determine how to proceed.
Workers have been making an inventory of signs posted at attractions such as community centers and golf courses, preparing to remove or at least cover those that no longer comply with the law.
An aging sign in the gym at the Greenbriar Community Center warns that “alcohol, drugs or weapons [are] not permitted.”
But officials aren’t allowed to ban guns arbitrarily.
“Some signs have been up for quite some time and they’ve just been overlooked,” said Richard Zavala, director of the city’s Parks and Community Services Department.
New signs will say that the unlicensed possession of a weapon is not allowed at the facility.
“That means if you’ve got the concealed-handgun license, you are legal to carry it in now and after Jan. 1 with open carry,” Zavala said.
The new open-carry law, which lets licensed Texans openly carry holstered handguns, takes effect Jan. 1.
As workers remove or cover up signs in Fort Worth, they will also document when that work is done. That way, if someone files a complaint, the city will know which signs were addressed and when.
If complaints about other signs are filed, “we are going to immediately deal with it,” Zavala said.
In Tarrant County, workers are reviewing buildings as well — particularly those with courtrooms, said David Phillips, the county’s director of facilities management.
County officials consulted the district attorney’s office and will remove signs such as those on the outside of subcourthouses and the county’s administration building. Guns are still barred at court hearings and meetings of government agencies, but not from the entire building, Phillips said.
“We have those signs at the entrances of the buildings,” he said. “We will move them to, for instance, in front of the area where justice of the peace courts are.
“We are going to change some language on it,” Phillips said. “It now says possession of weapons of any kind in this building aren’t allowed. We will change that to just mention they aren’t allowed in these courtrooms.”
At the administration building in downtown Fort Worth, another sign will be placed outside the room where county commissioners meet instead of on the building.
“Signs will be put on pedestals and put out when they have a meeting,” Phillips said. “Otherwise, after Sept. 1, you can walk around the building as long as you have a license to carry — except in that room on Tuesday mornings when they meet.”
A closer look
Signs warning Texans carrying concealed handguns that they are about to enter a no-carry zone are called “30.06,” after the section in the state penal code that addresses the issue. After Jan. 1, signs that address openly carrying handguns will be called “30.07.”
Private property owners can post signs telling people that guns aren’t allowed — whether concealed or carried openly. But licensed Texans are allowed to carry their guns on many government properties.
The exceptions include courts or court offices, such as justice of the peace, criminal and civil courts, city council meetings and county commissioners courts; polling places on election day or during early voting; and some city- or county-owned buildings where alcohol is being served.
Proper signs must be posted.
Source: Texas Penal Code