Texas Zoos Can't Change Their Spots

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posted on December 7, 2015
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It has long been the case in Texas that concealed carry is recognized as legal in facilities owned by cities, with certain exceptions—grade schools, courthouses and hospitals, for instance, are allowed by state law to prohibit guns. In reality, any number of institutions have declared themselves exempt for one flimsy reason or another; lacking a simple enforcement mechanism, there hasn’t been much that ordinary gun owners could do about it.“It’s a place to obtain knowledge, but it’s a far cry from an educational institution. You can’t earn credits by staring at monkeys.” – T. Edwin Walker

All of that has now changed as a result of the state’s new open carry law. As of this fall, Texans have benefited from a formal complaint process that allows gun owners to report non-compliant institutions to the state attorney general. This new breakthrough in transparency and accountability has already led a number of parks and recreational facilities to remove their no-guns signs, but some city halls—particularly those in which court proceedings occur—are holding out. And the most eager to take advantage of any ambiguity found in the law are facilities that are privately run but located on public land.

Enter T. Edwin Walker, a Houston attorney who has made it his mission to slap down improper gun prohibitions wherever he finds them. Walker, who works for the gun-rights legal firm Texas Law Shield, sent a letter to the city of Houston only two days after the new law went into effect on Sept. 1, explaining that the Houston Zoo’s firearms prohibition was in violation of state law. Upon city request, the zoo quickly complied and removed the “30.06 signs”—so named for the section of the state penal code that they cite—banning concealed handguns on the premises. As is typically the case with city zoos, Houston’s is operated by a private entity but located on public land. 

Walker then turned his attention to other Texas cities, issuing a series of letters to publicly owned facilities. The Dallas Arboretum agreed to remove its 30.06 signs in November, surely reluctant to face the prospect of up to $10,500 in fines per day for non-compliance. But the Dallas Zoo stuck to its guns, or rather its official lack of them. Its claim, backed up by lawyers working for the city, is that it qualifies for exemption on two counts, both as an “educational institution” and as an “amusement park.” 

The latter category is a strange one for a zoo to claim membership in, but Dallas Zoo officials point to attractions that include a monorail—an argument that Walker calls “specious at best.” He counters that the zoo lacks anything that would qualify as an amusement park ride; and as far as education, it doesn’t offer any courses. The state attorney general must now review the case. The fallacious assumption that firearms are “not called for” in certain environments naively ignores the fact that no institution can guarantee the absence of malicious individuals who flout the law.

Unfortunately, the Dallas Zoo’s intractable position, which officials appear ready to hold through a protracted legal battle, has bolstered the courage of anti-gun officials. The Houston Zoo has now reinstalled its 30.06 signs. Although they are shying away from the “amusement park” justification, administrators claim that the zoo “… is—at its core—an educational institution …” and “… maintains an Education Department that employs 17 professional educators who develop and deliver education programming …”

“This is a sham,” Walker fired back. “This is clearly an act of desperation … it’s a place to obtain knowledge, but it’s a far cry from an educational institution. You can’t earn credits by staring at monkeys.” As with the Dallas Zoo, this is now a matter for the attorney general to rule on.

Only time will tell how long the fight over guns in Texas zoos will go on, but it is worth calling attention to an argument in the Houston Zoo’s statement that is sadly typical in anti-gun circles: “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.” The fallacious assumption that firearms are “not called for” in certain environments naively ignores the fact that no institution can guarantee the absence of malicious individuals who flout the law. It doesn’t have to be anything as destructive and relatively uncommon as a mass shooter or domestic terrorist—even mundane robbers are keen to take advantage of areas in which they know their victims will be disarmed. 

The presence of children in an environment also is not a cause to ban all guns in the vicinity. On the contrary, it should be an extra incentive to be prepared for all circumstances. Our kids deserve to be safe in school, in church—and yes, at the zoo.

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