How Texas governments are trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep guns out of public buildings

Terry Holcomb, executive director of Texas Carry, wearing his customized holster at the Capitol during a protest on Jan. 1.
Terry Holcomb, executive director of Texas Carry, wearing his customized holster at the Capitol during a protest on Jan. 1.
(Ralph Barrera / Associated Press)

With an AR-15-style rifle slung across his chest and a handgun holstered on his hip, an angry man stepped up to address the gathering crowd outside this rural county seat’s courthouse.

The problem, he said, was that some officials want to keep firearms out of courthouses and other government buildings.

“There’s all these multi-use facilities that are preventing gun owners from accessing their public services,” C.J. Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, railed over a bullhorn Friday as some of the 35 people assembled applauded and shouted, “We want our rights back!”

C.J. Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, tells a crowd in Hempstead, "We want our rights back!"
C.J. Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, tells a crowd in Hempstead, “We want our rights back!”
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times )

As gun rights advocates have successfully pushed for greater access to public spaces in Texas, some localities are pushing back, citing safety and cost concerns — even otherwise gun-friendly officials in Hempstead.

Earlier this year, Texas surpassed a million licensed handgun owners — 1,069,706, to be exact, as of June 30, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. That’s about 4% the state’s 27 million residents.

New laws allow handgun owners in Texas the freedom to openly carry (as opposed to concealed carry), to carry more broadly on college campuses (so-called campus carry), and to appeal handgun bans in government offices.

A law passed last year forbids state and local officials from posting signs restricting the concealed carrying of handguns by lawful permit holders. People objecting to such signs can file complaints with local agencies and the attorney general’s office, which is charged with investigating and taking possible offenders to court. Violators could face a $10,500 daily fine.

The Texas attorney general’s office has taken only one local agency to court over the complaints — the city of Austin — and that case is pending, a spokeswoman said. The office did not have a tally of complaints filed.

Open Carry Texas officials have filed complaints against 63 local entities over gun bans. The Rev. Terry Holcomb, founder of another gun rights group, Texas Carry, filed complaints against Hempstead — population 6,400 — which posted signs at courthouse entrances warning that it’s a felony to bring guns inside. He filed similar complaints against 75 other local government entities.

The idea that some of the most law-abiding citizens have to leave their gun in their car to go pay their property taxes is ludicrous.

Terry Holcomb, founder of Texas Carry

“There’s criminals everywhere we go, there’s emotional trauma everywhere we go; you can’t get away from it,” Holcomb said. “The idea that some of the most law-abiding citizens have to leave their gun in their car to go pay their property taxes is ludicrous. There’s just no good reason to do that. I mean, we carry in the Legislature, one of the most emotional places in the state.”

Holcomb said 26 of the agencies he filed complaints against dropped their gun bans.

But if state law prohibits such no-guns-allowed signs, why are governments posting them? The answer is that another state law bars carrying a handgun “on the premises of a government court.” Gun-rights advocates say that provision applies to courtrooms, but officials in Hempstead and elsewhere say it means entire courthouses, including associated offices, such as those for tax assessors.

After Holcomb complained to the attorney general’s office about Waller County’s ban, the county struck back, suing him last month for $100,000 in damages.

“There are certain places that guns should not be taken: a bar where you serve alcohol, a sporting event, a federal building, a school and a courthouse,” said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, the county’s top executive. He defended the lawsuit, along with the district attorney and other county officials.

Duhon noted that tempers often flare at the courthouse, “where people go to resolve disputes; where you have divorces, custody battles, child support.”

The three-story Hempstead courthouse, built of limestone and red brick in 1955, has a single elevator, staircase and narrow hallways that do not lend themselves to having security checkpoints at every turn, he said.

About 2,600, or 6%, of county residents are licensed to carry handguns, according to state figures.

If people were allowed to carry guns inside the courthouse, the county would have to add checkpoints and hire additional bailiffs. Even so, Duhon said, “I don’t think anyone would be comfortable serving on a murder trial jury knowing the defendant’s family members could be sitting in the hallway with a gun.”

Duhon added that he and most local officials are gun owners, that he believes in the 2nd Amendment and open carry. But inside the courthouse, he said, “it just doesn’t make sense.”

On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office notified Duhon that it had substantiated Holcomb’s complaint that the law does not allow the county to bar those carrying handguns from the courthouse. It gave the county 15 days to comply.

Protesters gather at courthouse in support of the Rev. Terry Holcomb, founder of gun rights group, Texas Carry.

When Duhon recently contacted the Texas Assn. of Counties, he learned many have been coping with complaints about their efforts to keep guns out of county buildings.

“You have counties that are moving offices and making changes because they’re in fear that if they don’t they’re going to get assessed” a fine, he said. “Our county was not going to be bullied by the attorney general into making changes if we’re not legally required to do so.”

Texas has seen several shootings near courthouses in recent years, notably a prosecutor gunned down by a justice of the peace three years ago outside the Kaufman County courthouse southeast of Dallas.

But Duhon harked back even further to 1905, when four people were shot dead at the Hempstead courthouse, including U.S. Rep. John Pinckney and his brother, who had been meeting with prohibitionists attempting to ban alcohol. The town became known as “Six Shooter Junction.”

After Duhon traded barbs with Holcomb online, he was contacted by the FBI ahead of Friday’s protest to say the agency was investigating death threats against Duhon, the district attorney and other county officials.

Law enforcement advised them to avoid the protest, which they did.

Waller County Dist. Atty. Elton Mathis closed his office for the day, issuing a statement saying, “We do not allow guns in prisons, hospitals, or sporting arenas, and we should continue to prohibit them in courthouses as well.”

Mathis said allowing guns in the courthouse “would subject witnesses, victims, jurors, officers, prosecutors, and judges to an unnecessary and unjustifiable risk.”

He said those being investigated for making death threats against him “are some of the individuals who would be allowed to carry firearms in courthouses under this wrong interpretation of the law. This fact alone highlights the importance of courthouse security and the recognition of the heightened emotions and security considerations involved.”

Outside the courthouse Friday, wearing his handgun in a Texas Carry-embossed leather holster as sheriff’s deputies looked on, Holcomb called the lawsuit against him a retaliatory attempt to silence him. He vowed to keep fighting, not just here but in bigger cities, such as nearby Houston in Harris County, which boasts the highest number of licensed handgun owners of any county in the state.

“You need to rise up and stand up against this oppression!” Holcomb shouted to the crowd, which applauded.

Sitting nearby, local retiree Pat Bruegger — who owns guns but isn’t licensed to carry them — said she got upset after reading about the lawsuit and came to support Holcomb.

“We should be able to disagree with the government” without getting sued, she said. “You can’t say you can have a weapon, but not here.”

Walking past her, Nickleberry Lilly disagreed.

“What if I don’t like the decision of the court? What if I get angry?” the 59-year-old rancher said.

Lilly, who is African American, also worried about racial attacks in a town where Sandra Bland’s death at the local jail blocks away from the courthouse sparked heated protests and drew national attention last year.

“There’s a lot of places guns belong: hunting, protection in rural areas. Guns don’t belong in courthouses,” Lilly said.

Lilly was headed to court himself Friday for a contentious case. Soon after, a group of protesters disarmed themselves and followed, on their way to the clerk’s office to file complaints against the gun ban.

Twitter: @mollyhf


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