Texas sues to enforce right to carry guns in county courthouse
Responding to complaints from gun-rights advocates pushing for greater access to public buildings, the Texas attorney general has sued a southeast Texas county that tried to ban guns from its courthouse.
“A local government cannot be allowed to flout Texas’s licensed carry laws, or any state law, simply because it disagrees with the law or doesn’t feel like honoring it,” Republican Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton said in a statement announcing the lawsuit Tuesday against Waller County, about 55 miles west of Houston. “I will vigilantly protect and preserve the 2nd Amendment rights of Texans.”
Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said the announcement wasn’t a surprise: Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office substantiated a complaint about the county’s action and notified Waller officials that if they didn’t respond in 15 days, they could face a lawsuit.
“We fully expected it to be filed, and we look forward to a hearing on the merits,” Duhon said. “We believe we are fully complying with what the Texas Legislature intended.”
It appears Waller County will be a test case of a law passed last year that 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.
“We are anxious to have the issue resolved by the courts so that all Texans can be safe and sure about the law,” Waller County Dist. Atty. Elton Mathis said.
Before Tuesday, the Texas attorney general’s office had taken only one local agency to court over the complaints — the city of Austin — and that case is pending. The office did not have a tally of complaints filed.
Gun-rights advocates with the group Open Carry Texas have filed complaints against 63 local entities over gun bans. The Rev. Terry Holcomb, founder of another gun-rights group, Texas Carry, filed a complaint against Waller County’s courthouse, which has signs at the entrances warning it’s a felony to bring guns inside.
He filed similar complaints against 75 other local government entities and said 26 since have dropped their gun bans.
Not Waller County officials, though. Instead, they struck back, suing him last month for $100,000 in damages. Holcomb counter-sued this month, alleging the county filed suit to intimidate and shut him up.
“It’s extremely fitting that the attorney general is going to take lawless Waller County to task for their criminal behavior,” Holcomb said. “We’re going to prevail.”
If state law prohibits banning guns from courthouses and other public buildings, why do officials keep posting signs? The answer is that another state law allows them to bar carrying handguns “on the premises of a government court.”
Gun-rights advocates say that provision applies to courtrooms, but officials in Waller County and elsewhere say it means entire courthouses, including associated offices, such as those for tax assessors.
The three-story Waller County 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, Duhon said. If people were allowed to carry guns inside, he said the county would have to add checkpoints and hire additional bailiffs.
About 2,600, or 6%, of Waller County residents are licensed to carry handguns, according to state figures. Earlier this year, Texas surpassed a million licensed handgun owners — 1,069,706 as of June 30, about 4% the state’s 27 million residents.
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