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Packing heat at the zoo

Yeah, this won’t cause any controversy.

Not any more

Houston Zoo officials have been forced to remove long-standing “no guns” signage from the city-owned property after a prominent gun rights attorney filed a complaint, marking the first visible local example of a new state law that targets government entities illegally restricting concealed carry.

Though the Houston Zoo is operated by a private entity, the Hermann Park land it sits on belongs to the city. Private business owners can restrict gun usage; on most government properties, however, licensed Texans are allowed to carry guns.

Now, under legislation that took effect Sept. 1, residents who believe governments are violating that law have a streamlined and strengthened means to file a complaint locally, with the option of appealing to the Texas attorney general. Local governments risk daily fines of up to $10,000, depending on the number of violations, if they fail to remove signage deemed illegal.

Houston attorney T. Edwin Walker with Texas Law Shield, a gun rights advocacy legal firm, quickly put the law to practice Sept. 3, sending a letter to the city stating the zoo’s “no guns” signs were illegal.

“A week later I get a call from the associate general counsel from the city of Houston that they couldn’t argue with my argument,” Walker said. “There was no getting around it.”

The signs came down Sept. 11, said zoo spokeswoman Jackie Wallace. Since then, zoo and city officials have been “investigating the legal implications of the request” and consulting with other Texas cities, Wallace said. Zoo officials said they’ve long believed the facility qualifies as an educational institution under state law, permitting the gun ban.

The same reasoning has been applied at the privately run but publicly situated Dallas Zoo, where officials are now confronting the same problem. A spokeswoman for the Dallas Zoo did not return requests for comment Monday about what the facility has done with its signs.

In Houston, Wallace said there was “no angst” between the zoo and the city. Both entities were working together to figure out if there were any legal remedies.

“We do recognize that this has the potential to confuse or concern our guests and members,” Wallace said. “And we want to emphasize that this will not alter our number-one priority, which is the safety of our guests, employees and animals.”

The Press talked to T. Edwin Walker:

“I guarantee there is no license holder who is going to go to the zoo in anticipation of shooting a giraffe in front of a bunch of school children,” Walker said in an interview. “The issue is just that this is a place where the government is not allowed to tell people that they can’t carry a licensed handgun. The Texas government has recognized that people have the right to defend themselves. How do they do that? With a gun.”

City crime statistics (and common sense) indicate the Houston Zoo is hardly the most unsafe place in town. It sits in a crime beat that stretches from the Southwest Freeway in the north to Old Spanish Trail in the south, with Main Street and Highway 288 serving as the east and west border, respectively. Since January 2010, 11 murders have been reported in that zone, and none of them happened at the zoo. By comparison, there have been 40 reported murders during the same time in the zone that encompasses Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood.

Still, Walker said he wouldn’t necessarily feel safe and sound at the Houston Zoo without his gun.

“Unfortunately we live in a world where there are people who are intent to do harm unto others,” Walker said. “I don’t want to be punched in the face or stabbed with a knife. We are allowed to be secure in the knowledge that if somebody does attack me, I have the best tool available to defend myself. That tool is a gun.”

I’m not going to bother arguing with those statements, because this is one of those places where facts don’t really matter. I’m just going to say this: I grew up in New York City in the 70s and 80s. Charles Bronson, the Son of Sam, Bernie Goetz, Fort Apache The Bronx, The Warriors – this was the cultural background of my childhood. And yet, I don’t believe I knew anybody while I was growing up who had a gun. They just weren’t part of who we were. To this day, I just don’t understand the mindset expressed here by T. Edwin Walker. It has nothing to do with the relative level of safety and crime that we have here and now versus there and then. I just don’t get it. I’m not making any claims about right and wrong, and I have no argument with the interpretation of the law. As I said, I just don’t get it.

I fully expect there to be some backlash over this, and I support that. This is a political issue, and we didn’t get to this point without one side of that issue aggressively and successfully pursuing its agenda. The folks who don’t like it need to make a lot of noise, and figure out a way to translate that into some wins at the ballot box. But let’s all be honest about a couple of things. It was almost certainly the case that people brought guns into the zoo before last week – it’s been awhile since I was last there, but there were no bag checks or metal detectors at the gate, so anyone could have been packing heat in their purse or shoulder holster. Having a sign may deter some otherwise law-abiding folks, but it’s no deterrent to anyone who wanted to cause a problem. However bizarre it is to someone like me that someone like T. Edwin Walker can’t feel safe at the zoo unless he’s armed, the real problem is that as a country we’re up to our eyeballs in guns and that the sheer number of people killed every day by guns just doesn’t bother a lot of the rest of us, at least not enough to do anything about it. The debate about allowing guns at the Houston Zoo will pass. The bigger issue will be with us for a long time.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    Kuff,

    People wanting to carry a gun for protection of themselves, their loved ones, and friends, is not abnormal. Bad things happen every day, even here in Houston. Crime doesn’t take a holiday. Mentally disturbed people intent on mayhem don’t take holidays. Some people would prefer to do something about that, to be prepared (like the Boy Scouts) for any eventuality. Do you carry insurance for your car, home, and life? Think of carrying a gun as insurance you can take with you. Beyond that, this is still Texas. Self reliance is still kind of a big deal here for some folks.

    Like police officers, I imagine that most people hope to never have to pull their weapon, but at least they have that option, unlike our military recruiters, who, in the event of an attack, get to hide behind a partition while someone actively tries to kill them.

    In short, Kuff, people don’t want to be victims. Can you blame them for that?