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T. Edwin Walker

AG upholds Dallas Zoo ban on guns

For now.

It’s back

The Dallas Zoo can continue to ban guns at its 106-acre campus in Oak Cliff after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week rejected a citizen complaint that the zoo’s firearms policy violated state law.

Paxton’s office said in a letter dated Wednesday that the zoo qualifies as an amusement park. That’s an area where state law says the licensed carrying of handguns can be prohibited, so long as the proper notice is given.

So the privately-run zoo can keep up the signs prohibiting both concealed carry and open carry that it has posted at its entrance.

“We’re heartened that the Attorney General realizes that our zoo … isn’t the place for weapons,” Gregg Hudson, the zoo’s president said in a news release. “The vast majority of our guests are families with children, and they have strongly supported us on this issue.”

Edwin Walker, a Houston attorney, had challenged the zoo under a new state law that allows Texans to formally complain about some local “no guns” policies. His complaint was one of about 50 that have been filed in Texas since September.

He said on Friday that he disagreed with the ruling – arguing that the zoo shouldn’t be able to ban guns since it is owned by the city of Dallas. He predicted that the Legislature, run by gun-friendly Republicans, would take up the issue next year.

“I certainly don’t think that the Legislature envisioned, whenever they created the exception for amusement parks … that a piece of government property would be viewed as an amusement park,” Walker said.

[…]

The zoo offered a multi-pronged argument for why it could ban firearms, including that it should count as an educational institution. But the attorney general’s office ignored those other claims and focused only on the Dallas Zoo’s amusement park exemption.

The carve-out dates back to 1995 and the legislation that created concealed carry in Texas. Then-Rep. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, amended the bill create an exemption aimed at the state’s major theme parks, such as Arlington’s Six Flags Over Texas.

“The nature of the rides and the activities at these theme parks are such that they could create a hazard,” he said during the House debate on the bill.

Today, privately owned theme parks like Six Flags don’t need that specific exemption to ban guns. That’s because the state’s gun laws were tweaked in 1997 to create a process for all private property owners to be able to prohibit guns if they so choose.

The eight-point definition for an amusement park exemption, however, remains part of the gun statutes. And the Dallas Zoo – which, for instance, has security guards on its premises at all times – meets all of those listed standards.

Point being, the Houston Zoo, which had taken down its “no guns” signs then put them back up after declaring itself an “educational institution”, can’t take any comfort from this opinion. And even if they could, I’m certain that Walker is correct and the Lege will trip over itself to accommodate the people like Walker who can’t feel safe anywhere unless they’re armed. So enjoy the reprieve while you can, zoo fans.

Houston Zoo reverses its stance on allowing in guns

This was a surprise.

It’s back

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.

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.