Fort Worth

Fight over guns in Fort Worth spreads to a museum

Guns are not allowed at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Guns are not allowed at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Star-Telegram

Two local attractions may be in the sights of Texas lawmakers this year.

Recent legal rulings about guns at the Fort Worth Zoo and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History seem to raise more questions than ever among gun-carrying Texans, who are calling on state lawmakers to settle the issue about guns once and for all.

The Texas Attorney General’s office recently ruled that signs preventing guns at the museum are legal, just as similar signs preventing guns are legal at the zoo. But critics say both attractions — privately-run facilities on city-owned land — should be open to gun-carrying Texans.

“If all government agencies contracted out the running of their services, we would start seeing these problems everywhere,” said Terry Holcomb, a pastor and executive director of Texas Carry, a gun-rights group. “It doesn’t change the fact that it’s public property at the end of the day.”

State law has long stated that local governments may not ban licensed Texans from carrying handguns except in certain weapon-free zones. But privately run companies and attractions have the ability to restrict guns.

Museum officials say they believe this issue is resolved, since the state closed an investigation into the signs at the facility and said the signs are not illegal.

“The intent of the sign is clear and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History’s right to post such signage has been upheld,” said Rebecca Rodriguez, executive director of marketing and communications at the museum.

Holcomb, however, said he plans to talk to the AG’s office to get more information about the museum ruling. And his attorneys are drafting a legal brief for the state regarding potential problems with the zoo ruling.

“The law does not prevent them from posting. No, we concur with that,” Holcomb said. “But is the law preventing me from carrying past that sign? The law doesn’t answer that.”

So he said he’s giving state lawmakers until the end of the 85th Legislature in May to straighten out the issue.

“I’m asking the Legislature to fix this,” he said. “They’re creating a dangerous situation for people when they say, ‘Yeah, you can post,’ and ‘Yeah, you can ignore the post.’ 

Texas laws

Texas has allowed licensees to carry concealed handguns since 1995 and to openly carry them for more than a year.

State 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 governmental entities are meeting.

But license holders, including around 80,000 in Tarrant County, now have more ways to protest when they believe they are being wrongly prevented from carrying their weapons.

In 2015, lawmakers set penalties for governmental entities that wrongly banned guns at their facilities. And they created a process letting Texans write up complaints questioning signs they believe are improperly posted and send them to the state for investigation.

There, officials review the complaints and weigh in on the issue.

If they say signs have wrongly been put up, government officials have to remove them and let licensed Texans carry their weapons there, or pay a fine every day until they do.

Local complaints were filed against the museum and zoo, alleging that the private entities are wrongly preventing guns from being carried on the property.

The attorney general’s office last year weighed in on the zoo complaint, saying the signs are legal. But the ruling didn’t state whether whether violators would be arrested for carrying guns past the signs into the attraction.

Nearly identical wording was used recently in the museum complaint ruling.

The attorney general’s office letters, both written by Matthew R. Entsminger, assistant attorney general, stated that they were closing both complaints.

Museum case

The museum is housed on land owned by the city. But the building is owned and operated by a private nonprofit organization.

The museum, at 1600 Gendy St., has posted a notice on its website, stating: The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History prohibits weapons as provided in Sec. 46.03 of the State Penal Code. The Museum School, also located on these premises, has operated as a licensed educational institution since 1950, and the Museum operates daily as a destination for public and private school sponsored activities.

Five signs noting that weapons are not allowed on the property are posted on the building, which also houses the Omni Theater and the museum school.

“Signs pertaining to concealed carry laws were installed with construction of the new museum building in 2009; we simply updated the language to reflect the new law,” Rodriguez said. “The signs pertaining to open carry were installed in 2016.”

Gerald Pruitt, deputy city attorney for Fort Worth, said the city is pleased with the recent attorney general’s ruling and believes it is correct.

But he said he and others are watching the Texas Legislature for any bills that might clarify the issue this year.

“We will be interested to see what happens in the Legislature,” he said. “We will live with it, the current law. We are in compliance.

“We have done everything we can over the past year and a half to be in compliance with the state law and we will continue to do that.”

Looking forward

As for the zoo, it is an attraction that 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.

A ruling last year about the zoo says the signs to ban guns from being brought in don’t violate certain sections of the Government Code. But again, it didn’t state whether violators would be arrested for carrying guns past the signs into the attraction.

Holcomb said he hopes state lawmakers clear up the murky issue during the ongoing session.

“The session is just getting started,” he said. “But there has not been a bill filed yet to address this.

“If the Legislature doesn’t address this, we will have to look at the option of being a test case.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley