The fight over guns isn’t even close to over at the Fort Worth Zoo.
The Texas attorney general’s office recently ruled that signs preventing guns at the zoo are legal, but some gun-carrying Texans say the public notices simply don’t apply to them.
“I could absolutely walk by that sign and open carry in there all day long,” said Terry Holcomb, a pastor and executive director of Texas Carry, a gun-rights group.
That’s because the privately run attraction is on city-owned land, which isn’t off-limits to handguns, he said. But the question is whether he would be arrested for carrying guns past the signs into the attraction.
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“This creates an extremely confusing and dangerous situation for a license holder,” he said.
Holcomb said he has received “many, many” phone calls since the attorney general’s office released its recent nonbinding opinion about the Fort Worth Zoo. He said his attorney is talking to state attorneys about this ruling because “we think they missed something.”
AG officials declined to comment.
Zoo officials say they will abide by the recent opinion.
And some gun-rights advocates are turning to state lawmakers, saying it’s time to clean up state law so that it’s crystal clear exactly where guns are allowed.
Meanwhile, Holcomb said he’s putting state lawmakers and the Fort Worth Zoo on notice.
I will give the Legislature a chance to fix this in the next five months. If they don’t fix it, then I will go be the test case.
Terry Holcomb, executive director of Texas Carry
“I will give the Legislature a chance to fix this in the next five months,” he said. “If they don’t fix it, then I will go be the test case.
“Someone has to do something to protect the license holders in the state.”
But for now, Holcomb says he is asking the more than 1.1 million Texans who have a License to Carry to not push the issue.
“I’m recommending to people to stand down,” he said. “I absolutely don’t want to see anyone get arrested.”
Texas gun laws
Texas has allowed licensees to carry concealed handguns since 1995 and to openly carry them since Jan. 1.
But license holders — including nearly 80,000 in Tarrant County — now have more ways to protest when they believe they are being wrongly prevented from carrying their weapons.
Texas law has long said local governments may not ban licensed Texans from carrying handguns except in certain weapon-free zones such as courtrooms, schools and rooms where government entities are meeting.
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 the complaints and weigh in on the issue. If signs are 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.
Some political observers believe this issue will be alive and well in the upcoming legislative session.
“The issue is still … potent for Republicans who politically want to keep the issue alive,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Fort Worth Zoo
The case of the Fort Worth Zoo is a bit unusual.
The Fort Worth Zoo was owned and operated by the city until 1991, when the Fort Worth Zoological Association assumed management of daily operations under contract with the city.
The attraction, founded in 1909, was owned and operated by the city until 1991, when the Fort Worth Zoological Association assumed management of daily operations under contract with the city.
Zoo officials say they can prohibit guns on the property, which is open 365 days a year and features about 7,000 animals, because the 64-acre site is a privately run attraction and designated a day-care facility by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Others disagree with that policy because the state’s oldest animal attraction remains on city-owned land.
“I’ve gotten complaints about the Fort Worth Zoo forever,” said Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. “People have been questioning the signs since they went up there 20 years ago.
“Taxpayer-owned property can’t be prohibited to licensees, except for the properties currently prohibited in statute,” she said. “This is not something the Legislature intended to have happen.”
Zoo officials say they will abide by the recent AG opinion, which lets the signs stay up to ban guns from being brought into the attraction.
“What we’ve been told by the Attorney General’s office is because we operate as a private entity, we are allowed to post those signs,” said Alexis Wilson, the zoo’s communications director. “Our stance all along is that we want to abide by the law and we know the License to Carry crowd wants to abide by the law.
“It’s a whole bunch of law-abiding citizens trying to follow the law.”
Tripp said she is going to be talking to lawmakers about creating legislation to clean up murky language that leaves many confused.
She’d like to see the Legislature fix what she calls a “weakness in (state law) language” that was highlighted by the recent AG ruling.
The Texas Legislature goes back to work Jan. 10.
“Legal language is a tool and it’s constructed as well as you can,” Tripp said. “But, like all tools, you don’t know how it is until it is used.”
Several gun advocates say they’d like to see all private property restrictions, including those prohibiting the carrying of guns at churches, hospitals and amusement parks, removed from government codes and laws.
For now, Tripp said she personally wouldn’t carry guns into the Fort Worth Zoo, at least not while signs preventing them remain.
And she wouldn’t recommend that anyone else do it either.
“There was not legislative intent to not allow carry at the Fort Worth Zoo,” Tripp said. “It’s inconsistent with other zoos.
“This just highlights a weakness in the law that must be corrected.”
Signs staying up
Zoo officials say the signs will stay up.
And, in the past, anytime someone inadvertently wore guns into the zoo and saw the signs, “I don’t know if there has been an instance where they haven’t turned around and put the guns back in the car,” Wilson said.
Despite questions through the years about whether the zoo could legally restrict guns from the property, the recent attorney general ruling “is as much clarification as we have gained,” Wilson said.
“We will operate by that until more clarification comes to us.”
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the issue and on whether talks are ongoing with Holcomb or others about the Fort Worth Zoo opinion, which was released last month.
If someone does wear guns onto the property, “to my knowledge, the signs are enforceable,” Wilson said.
“This is not a gun issue for us,” she said. “This is strictly abiding by the law.”
The overall issue isn’t likely to be cleared up anytime soon, said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU.
“Obviously, there is conflict between folks who want more restrictions and those who want fewer (or no) restrictions,” he said. “But the bottom line is that the courts and the Legislature will have to hone the general principles going forward. And that takes a bit of time.”
Holcomb said he and others won’t give up until the issue is straightened out.
We need a really big clean up bill so we can simplify this and everyone knows exactly where they can carry.
Terry Holcomb, executive director of Texas Carry
If other governments follow Fort Worth’s lead and lease out attractions on city-owned land to be run by private companies, signs preventing the open and concealed carry of guns could pop up across the state, he said.
“It upends the law,” he said. “Texas gun laws are extremely convoluted for political purposes.
“We need a really big cleanup bill so we can simplify this and everyone knows exactly where they can carry.”