With the state's new open carry law set to go into effect January 1, private institutions need to choose whether or not they will allow people to openly carry licensed handguns on their property. The law says most government-owned properties cannot prohibit open carry (although which government properties have to abide by that is still up in the air), and it lets private business owners decide if they want to opt out of the law. Those who choose to opt out must clearly display signs indicating open carry is not OK.
The law puts private businesses in an uncomfortable spot by forcing them to publicly make a decision. If you prohibit guns, you risk losing pro-gun rights customers. If you allow guns, you may risk the safety of customers and employees, and you could lose customers who favor gun control.
Some private institutions have already opted out of open carry, like Rice University and, most recently, grocery store chain H-E-B. But there are a lot of places with unclear policies regarding open carry, making things like a trip to the bank or an overnight stay at a swanky hotel a bit confusing for people openly toting their guns (and for other people hoping to avoid those people). It seems some businesses we reached out to would rather ignore the fast-approaching law (or at least our inquiry) altogether, preferring the safe public image of ambiguity as opposed to establishing a clear and potentially divisive gun policy.
Here's a list of some private businesses and institutions that have made their policies clear:
Grocery store chains H-E-B, Whole Foods and Safeway (which owns Randall's) announced last week that they will not allow open carry inside their Texas locations. “As a retailer of alcohol, long guns and unlicensed guns are prohibited on our property under the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission rules,” H-E-B said in a statement, according to USA Today. “H-E-B maintains the same policy we have for years, only concealed licensed handguns are allowed on our property.”
But gun owners can carry their handguns openly in Kroger grocery stores, Breitbart reported last week. "If the local gun laws are to allow open carry, we’ll certainly allow customers to do that based on what the local laws are," Kroger CFO Michael Schlotman told CNBC in March, according to Breitbart. "We don’t believe it’s up to us to legislate what the local gun control laws should be. It’s up to the local legislators to decide to do that."
Meanwhile, some big-box retailers like Target have also decided they don't want guns inside. "This is a complicated issue, but it boils down to a simple belief: Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create," current CFO John Mulligan said in an online statement in July. "We... respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target – even in communities where it is permitted by law." Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has not issued an official statement on its open carry policy in Texas, but it appears to have left the decision whether to allow open carry to individual stores, like this one in Waco, which told the Waco Tribune last week that it would be banning open carry.
The Houston Galleria announced last week that it will remain mostly gun-free. "As a private property owner, [Galleria parent company] Simon will continue to enforce its existing policy of not allowing possession of any weapon on its property whether concealed or displayed openly, other than licensed weapons carried by law enforcement personnel," Galleria General Manager Greg Noble said in a statement, according to KHOU. "Once the law goes into effect, any shopper in possession of a weapon will be individually notified of Simon's existing policy by a member of the security or management team and asked to comply."
Local private colleges Rice University and University of St. Thomas have decided to opt-out of the state's campus carry law. In a letter announcing the university's decision, Rice president David Leebron said pretty much every student or faculty organization the university consulted was "overwhelmingly opposed" to allowing guns on campus.
For now, you are not allowed to carry weapons at the Houston Zoo. The zoo reinstated its gun ban a few months after a gun rights activist threatened to sue the zoo if it did not take down its signs prohibiting guns, claiming the zoo is on city-owned property and is not a private business. Zoo spokesperson Jackie Wallace said in a statement that the zoo believes it can legally ban guns because it is an educational institution. "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," Wallace said in the statement. The zoo's gun ban will likely be reviewed by the state Attorney General's office.
A long list of national chain restaurants have said that they do not want guns inside their eateries, including Applebee's, Jack in the Box, Wendy's, Starbucks, Sonic, Panera, Chili's, and Chipotle. We also reached out to Chick-fil-A, but have not received a response.
In July, Whataburger announced that it would not allow customers to carry openly in its restaurants. "We’ve had many customers and employees tell us they’re uncomfortable being around someone with a visible firearm who is not a member of law enforcement, and as a business, we have to listen and value that feedback in the same way we value yours," CEO Preston Atkinson said in a statement on Whataburger's website. "We have a responsibility to make sure everyone who walks into our restaurants feels comfortable. For that reason, we don’t restrict licensed concealed carry but do ask customers not to open carry in our restaurants."
On Monday, the Chron reported Gringo's Mexican Kitchen and Jimmy Changa's said they would not allow open carry in their restaurants. “We didn’t feel that it’s necessary to allow someone to open carry in an atmosphere where children and families frequent. Plus there is alcohol at our locations," Russell Ybarra, who owns both Tex-Mex chains, told the Chron on Monday.
Chuck E. Cheese's sent out a memo to its Texas stores a few weeks ago outlining its gun-free policy, all but ensuring that the entertainment restaurant's ball pit will retain its title as the most hazardous thing inside, narrowly edging out the pizza (*see the end of this post for a very important ball pit-related correction). "To ensure the safety of our guests and employees, it is Chuck E. Cheese’s policy that guests may not carry fire arms into our restaurants, whether openly or concealed," Chuck E. Cheese's spokesperson Alexis Linn said in a statement to the Houston Press. "This policy does not, however, apply to law enforcement officers, whether in uniform or in plain clothes, who may always bring their service weapon into our restaurants. Law enforcement personnel who are out of uniform simply must present a badge and photo identification. In accordance with the new Texas law, we are posting signs that state our policy regarding the open carry of fire arms near the front entrances of each of our Texas restaurants, where they may be clearly seen by all our guests."
The Burger Shack Grill along the Katy Freeway is unabashedly a safe space for burger-loving gun owners, with a few signs posted in the windows urging customers to bring their guns:
Churches are private businesses too, so we reached out to Joel Osteen's megachurch inside the Loop, Lakewood, to find out what they plan on doing once the open carry law goes into effect, but we have not yet received a response.
The ritzy Four Seasons Hotel downtown sent us an odd reply when we asked about its gun policy in advance of the open carry law.
"Thank you for reaching out to Four Seasons Houston," Four Seasons Houston spokesperson Hilary Rosenstein said in an email. "We are going to pass on this opportunity with the Houston Press. I hope you have a great holiday season and thank you for thinking of us!" We tried one more time, thinking maybe something was lost in translation. But nope: "We understand your desire for comment but will respectfully pass on this coverage. We wish you all the best with the story."
Unless a "no guns" sign quietly pops up on the premises sometime soon, one can only assume that the Four Seasons' refusal to explain its gun policy translates to the allowance of people to carry weapons on its property.
Similarly, Bank of America offered a less-than-specific response. In emails, spokesperson Tara Burke would only say that the bank will "abide by state law." Again, based on that non-answer it seems as though the bank's Texas branches will allow open carry inside. How security will be able to differentiate a lawful gun-toting citizen from your average bank robber is unclear.
We checked with Chase Bank, too, but they did not respond. (See update at the end of this story)
It's hard to tell if the businesses who have declined to clarify their open carry policies have done so out of ignorance of the new law or to preserve their public image, but it's clear that many businesses won't have gun policies in place by January 1, which doesn't really do anyone — lawful gun-toting customers or citizens simply seeking gun-free zones — much good.
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*Correction 5 p.m.: Much to our surprise and disappointment, Chuck E. Cheese's no longer has ball pits. Linn said in an email that Chuck E. Cheese's had removed the ball pits from all locations by 1998.
"We actually started getting rid of them in ’95," Linn said. "We found that we were able to bring in games that kids still loved but that didn’t require the extensive cleaning process that the ball pits required. So that boils down to operational efficiency. The other reason was safety, which is always our #1 priority. Kids would dive under the balls to the point where they weren’t visible [to] other children jumping in…nobody needs a shoe in the face!"
We deeply regret this unfortunate error.
Also: R.I.P. Chuck E. Cheese's ball pits.
Updated 11:30 a.m.: Chase Bank will not prohibit open carry, according to an email sent to us by spokesman Greg Hassell on Wednesday morning: "In states where open carry of a weapon is allowed, we do not restrict a customer from carrying a weapon, unless that customer is acting in an aggressive, hostile or intimidating manner, or making menacing references to a weapon."