Dallas Zoo May Have to Allow Guns

by | November 4, 2015

By Tom Benning

The Dallas Zoo could be headed for a legal showdown over the "no guns" signs posted at its entrance.

A Houston attorney lodged a formal complaint against the zoo last month under a new law, which created an enforcement mechanism for a 2003 law that lets concealed handgun license holders carry at most property "owned or leased by a governmental entity."

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 attorney, 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."

The attorney general's office has received about 20 complaints statewide since the new law took effect in September. Until then, Texans didn't really have a way to challenge questionable "no guns" signs posted by local governments.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Ken Paxton said that the claims are still under review and that the office hasn't "taken legal action on any complaint at this time."

Most local government property can't be off-limits to licensed gun carriers, but state law still allows firearms to be banned at schools, courts and a few other public areas. Most of the complaints so far have centered on interpretations of those exemptions.

Among the places hit with complaints to the attorney general are the Fort Worth Zoo, Austin City Hall and the Hays County Government Center. In another case, the Houston Zoo removed its "no guns" signs before a complaint reached the AG's office.

Further stoking the debate is that whatever changes the law causes will help create the standard for where licensed Texans can openly carry handguns for the first time in January.

Walker, the Houston attorney, 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.

(c)2015 The Dallas Morning News