Jefferson County tackles new gun regulations

The county courthouse, Parkdale Mall, Derek Poe and County Judge Jeff Branick

With new gun laws taking effect at the beginning of the year – just days away – businesses and governmental entities are preparing for how it will affect their operations. Multiple provisions activate Jan. 1, 2016, with implementation of HB 910, but most of the controversy surrounding the bill centers on open carry of firearms and the admittance of those weapons to businesses, city offices and public buildings.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which administers gun licensing, HB 910 “authorizes individuals to obtain a license to openly carry a handgun in the same places that allow the licensed carrying of a concealed handgun with some exceptions.”

Among the places openly carrying a firearm is not acceptable – yet – are institutions of higher learning. Higher learning institutions, such as Beaumont’s Lamar University, are required to “establish reasonable rules, regulations, or other provisions regarding the carrying of concealed handguns by license holders on the campus or on specific premises located on the campus” effective by Aug. 1, 2016. Junior public colleges must adopt regulations by Aug. 1, 2017.

Places not subject to HB 910 include public schools and federal buildings, as well as prisons, polling places on election day and establishments that get most of their profit from alcohol sales.

Private businesses and hospitals can prohibit admittance of concealed or open carry guns by posting notice of refusal and citing Penal Code Sec. 30.06 (concealed carry) and 30.07 (open carry) in a manner consistent with the law. But premises owned by governmental entities are not allowed the same right of refusal unless a licensed firearm holder is precluded from entering the grounds pursuant to other provisions of the law.

For the city of Beaumont, there is no provision to allow for refusing concealed or open carry firearms on its property. Currently, nothing prevents a licensed concealed handgun holder from bringing that weapon into the city offices, and there are not yet any announced plans to attempt to alter that fact. Jan. 1, openly carried weapons will also be allowed, barring intervention by city officials.

At the county courthouse, officials are already invoking Sec. 30.06 to prevent admittance of concealed carry weapons, with Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham citing a clause in the provision that allows for refusing admittance of weapons “on the premises of any government court or offices utilized by the court.” Wortham and Jefferson County commissioners are now working on language to preclude open carry, with the first draft of the posting heard at a meeting of the county leaders held Monday, Dec. 7.

No vote was taken to adopt the measure, according to Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, since wording in the original proposal was too all-encompassing.

“It purports to extend to all county buildings when it should have only extended to the courthouse and sub-courthouse where courts conduct their business,” Branick said.

A memo sent in October from the Opinion Committee of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may also preclude Jefferson County from banning weapons in the entirety of the courthouse. According to the opinion of the review team, deputy general counsel Andrew Oldham and general counsel Jimmy Blacklock, while the courtrooms and judicial chambers should be allowed to preclude admittance of weapons, other courthouse offices are not entitled to such a provision.

“In our view,” the governor’s team determined, “the Legislature has not banned (concealed handgun license) holders from carrying in a district attorney’s office, in a county treasurer’s office, the tax assessor’s office, the auditor’s office, the elections office, the human resources office, the IT office, and any other government office that is not part of the court.”

In sum, according to the state team, “a multi-purpose government building as a whole does not qualify as the premises of any government court.”

Wortham disagreed with the Opinion Team’s interpretation of the law, and its interpretation of the word “premises.” According to the county DA, invoking Sec. 43.035 of the Penal Code, “premises” means a building or portion of a building.” In this instance, he said, the building should count as a single entity – just as it has operated up to this point.

“Before open carry, when we had concealed weapons, you could not bring guns into the courthouse,” he said. “Sections 46.035 and the definition of premises, both those definitions have stayed the same; nothing has changed.”

The governor’s Opinion Team foresaw arguments such as Wortham’s but said the idea that all parts of a multi-purpose governmental building are areas where concealed and open carry guns could be prohibited “should fail.”

Further, the team determined, “It is true that, under Section 30.06 of the Penal Code, private property owners can provide effective oral notice to exclude handgun licensees. But since 2003, it is also true that a governmental entity’s notice, whether oral or otherwise, does not trigger that section’s exclusion of handgun licensees.

“And if there was any doubt on the latter score, the Legislature has now further confirmed that governmental entities – as opposed to private owners – cannot invoke Section 30.06.”

Judge Branick said the conflicting laws and interpretations leave a “potentiality” of problems when someone wants to buck the system already in place. As of now, security checkpoints and metal detectors are in place at the courthouse with guards to enforce strict compliance with posted signs that refuse admittance of any weapons or handguns pursuant to Sec. 30.06.

“A lot of people are interpreting the new law to allow persons with a gun into any building they want to go into,” Branick explained. “The problem is Gov. Abbott says you can’t prohibit them in the private offices of courthouses. That’s fine and dandy in places with satellite offices. … You have a correctional facility here.

“It left me in a position to say, ‘What are we going to do?’ I have a DA and sheriff sworn to uphold the laws of the state of Texas. When you have laws that are purportedly diametrically opposed to one another ... well, we have a problem.”

Branick said he’s confident in pushing forward with a ban on concealed and open carry guns in the Jefferson County Courthouse and will be actively watching to see if there are any judicial rulings relevant to the county’s situation. Right now, he said, there are multiple requests for opinions waiting with the attorney general for clarification. Even then, governor and attorney general opinions are not law.

“It’s still not the same as a judicial decision,” Branick said.

Private businesses such as Parkdale Mall, where Derek Poe was detained for openly carrying an assault rifle through the main halls of the building this time last year, have already posted signage precluding carrying firearms on the premises. Without signage, licensed firearm carriers are by default allowed to enter with their weapons.

According to the National Law Review, “To prohibit concealed handguns on their property, property owners must post signs in a conspicuous manner, clearly visible to the public, with language identical to the following:

“‘Pursuant to Section 30.06, Penal Code (trespass by license holder with a concealed handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (handgun licensing law), may not enter this property with a concealed handgun.’

“To prohibit the open carry of guns on their property, property owners now also must post a second sign conspicuously at each entrance to the property with the following language:

“‘Pursuant to Section 30.07, Penal Code (trespass by license holder with an openly carried handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (handgun licensing law), may not enter this property with a handgun that is carried openly.’

“The notices must use the exact language quoted above, be contained on separate signs, in English and Spanish, in contrasting colors with block letters at least one inch in height, and displayed in a conspicuous manner clearly visible to the public.

“In addition, pursuant to existing law, most public and private Texas employers may not prohibit employees who hold a license to carry a handgun from transporting or storing a firearm they lawfully possess in the employee’s locked, privately owned motor vehicle in an employer-provided parking area. Exceptions to this narrow carve-out include vehicles owned or leased by the employer, school districts, an open-enrolled charter school (as defined by Section 5.001 of the Education Code), a private school (as defined by Section 22.081 of the Education Code), property owned or controlled by a person (other than the employer) that is subject to a valid, unexpired oil, gas, or other mineral lease that contains a provision prohibiting the possession of firearms on the property, or specified properties owned or leased by chemical manufacturers or oil and gas refiners.” 

The full text of this law, codified in Chapter 52 of the Texas Labor Code, subchapter G, and Section 411.203 of the Texas Government Code, can be found at: (http://tinyurl.com/3zhgppz).

In Jefferson County in 2014, the last year statistics are available, DPS reported 2,426 new concealed handgun permit applications, with only eight denied. Jefferson County’s newly licensed masses only accounted for one percent of all new concealed carry permits awarded the same year.

Jefferson County Sheriff Mitch Woods said it is imperative on he and his team to be vigilant in protecting the county courthouse, but he will follow the law whatever way it is interpreted.

“We all know the security challenges we face … in this building now,” he said. “If we do anything different from that, the logistics are going to be a nightmare for us.

“You’ve got laws that are in conflict with each other. This is something that deserves the attention of the legislature, but until then … we can’t throw our common sense out the window when it comes to protecting the people inside this building.”

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