This was a surprise.
The Houston Zoo has reinstalled a series of signs that prohibit the carry of firearms into the gates of the family-friendly attraction almost three months after being forced to take them down at threat of legal action.
Attorney Edwin Walker with Texas Law Shield, a legal services firm for gun owners, sent a demand letter to the Houston Zoo and its corporate entity and the city’s parks and recreation department on Sept. 3 asking that they take down all 30.06 (guns prohibited) signs at the zoo.
The signs came down just a week or so after the letter was received and read.
After the signs came down the zoo staff said that they would be conferring with lawyers to see what the next step should be.
On Tuesday Walker was notified of the zoo’s sign reinstallation and said that he soon plans on taking a complaint to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.
In a statement sent to the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday, Houston Zoo spokesperson Jackie Wallace stated the zoo’s case for bringing the signs back.
“After consultation with legal counsel, the Houston Zoo, Inc. has concluded that Texas government code does not prohibit HZI from lawfully posting signs that ban weapons from its premises because HZI is – at its core – an educational institution,” Wallace wrote Tuesday.
The zoo argues that being an educational institution exempts it from being forced to allow firearms within its gates.
Wallace wrote that the zoo was established for educational and conservation purposes, bringing in some 200,000 children a year.
The zoo, Wallace added, “maintains an Education Department that employs 17 professional educators who develop and deliver educational programming on a daily basis at the Zoo.”
“Given the mission of the zoo and the presence of hundreds of thousands of children on its campus, it is clear that guns and zoos simply do not mix,” Wallace wrote.
“Texas law recognizes that weapons are not compatible with the education of our youth and prohibits weapons at a schools and educational institutions and places where activities sponsored by schools or educational institutions take place,” Wallace concluded, referencing Section 46.03 of the Texas Penal Code.
Walker responded to the statement on Tuesday, calling the signs among other things “provocative.”
“This is a sham,” Walker says. “This is clearly an act of desperation. They are hanging their hat on being an educational institution.”
See here for the background. The original argument, to which the Zoo temporarily acceded, was that since Hermann Park belongs to the city, the zoo counts as a government entity even though it is privately operated, and as a government entity it is required by the new law to allow guns. These fights about where guns may or may not now be restricted are going on all over the state and will be keeping the AG’s office busy for months to come. As the Houston Press noted, the same guy sent a letter to the Dallas Zoo but got a different response from them.
Though the zoo is run by a private nonprofit, it’s owned by the city of Dallas.
Zoo and city officials are adamant that the zoo qualifies as an “amusement park” and an “educational institution” — status that would make the “no guns” signs legal. Edwin Walker, the Houston lawyer, said there is “no way the zoo fits those definitions.”
Now the state attorney general’s office, which has been charged with investigating such complaints, is reviewing the claim to see if legal action is warranted. If the signs are found to be in violation, the city could face fines of up to $10,500 per day.
In the meantime, the Dallas Zoo’s “no guns” signs are staying up.
The “signs prohibiting handgun license holders from bringing concealed handguns into the Dallas Zoo are valid,” wrote David Harper, an attorney representing the zoo. “Therefore, the Dallas Zoo will not be removing those signs.”
Walker, the Houston lawyer, also filed the grievance against the Houston Zoo. He said his success there caused other gun rights advocates to contact him with similar concerns about the gun prohibition at the Dallas Zoo.
But the Dallas Zoo presents somewhat of a special case, particularly over its standing as an “amusement park.”
The designation typically refers to places like Six Flags Over Texas. But the zoo could potentially meet an eight-point test in state law to qualify. The sticking point appears to be if the zoo’s monorail or other attractions count as “amusement rides.”
That would be “specious at best,” said Walker, who works with Texas Law Shield, an organization that provides legal representation to gun owners.
But Dallas Park and Recreation Director Willis Winters said city officials agree with the zoo’s interpretation.
“The city attorneys are comfortable with it, and we’re glad to let the zoo’s counsel handle any challenges that might come up,” he said.
You can see the correspondence related to this at the link above. Gotta say, the “amusement park” claim seems like a stretch to me, but I suppose it’s possible. If it works, that could be a backup plan for the Houston Zoo. Of course, if it does work – indeed, if any of the current claims are resolved in favor of those who argue for allowing whatever restriction is being challenged – you can be sure the Lege will be back in 2017 to “clarify” the law in a way that obviates the exemption. As I said before, this is the world we live in, and this is how it will be until those who would like to see fewer guns in public places win some elections on that issue. More from the Press here.