Governor Greg Abbott has weighed in on the recent challenges to gun bans on certain government-owned properties, and he says city halls in particular can't prohibit concealed handgun licensees from carrying their weapons into the building, according to a memo the Governor's Office sent to the Attorney General in October which was first reported by Austin's Community Impact newspaper on Friday.
According to Abbott's memo, this is more an issue of semantics than Second Amendment rights.
Much of Abbott's memo discussed the meaning of one word in the section of law at the center of the debate, from the part of the Texas Penal Code that says "weapons are prohibited on the premises of any government court or offices utilized by the court, unless pursuant to written regulations or written authorization of the court."
Abbott's memo came on the heels of local gun rights proponents complaining that the Houston Zoo had an unlawful gun ban, prompting other gun advocates across the state to file similar complaints against government-owned properties with gun bans in place. Some city halls, like Austin's, claim their gun bans are legal because the building occasionally hosts overflow community court sessions or contain offices that are in some way used by courts. For multi-purpose government buildings that aren't used solely as courthouses, like city halls or county treasurer offices or even district attorney offices, the law presents a primarily etymological problem.
What, Abbott's office asks, does it mean to be "utilized?" Predictably, Gov. Abbott finds the definition to be very narrow, and almost uniquely tailored toward the pro-gun crowd:
[What] is an "office utilized by a court"? In our view, [that] means an office that is part of the court and is used by the court 100% of the time. Thus, the district court judges' chambers, the county courts-at-law judges' chambers, and the clerk's office qualify as the "offices utilized by the court."
In our view, however, 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 human resources office, the IT office, and any other government office that is not part of the court. To be sure, some or all of those offices might serve the courts in some sense. But the legislative proscription on handgun licensees does not extend to any office that merely serves the court. If the Legislature wanted to ban handgun licensees from any office that "served" the court, it surely would have said so — but it did not. The Legislature instead prohibited handgun licensees from carrying in "offices utilized by the court." That means neither the Attorney General nor a court can interpret the exclusion for "offices utilized by the court" to mean "offices that serve the court."
A state agency or political subdivision might urge a broad reading of "utilized by the courts," but that argument should fail. The Supreme Court of the United States recognized that the word "utilize" in the Federal Advisory Committee Act "is a wooly verb," and "one common sense of the term" is merely "to make use of." But the court held that such a broad reading of the word "utilize" must yield to broader statutory context. So here; especially when coupled with the Legislature's recognition that the ban on handgun licensees must be limited to the "portion of a building" that constitutes the court or the court's offices, it would be unreasonable to interpret "offices utilized by the court" to extend to any office that the court uses.
Essentially, the subjective interpretation of a single word, "utilize," could make it possible for people to bring loaded handguns into some of the local bureaucratic outposts that are most likely to make citizens feel frustrated and angry. It also appears to necessitate a division system — perhaps similar to smoking sections in restaurants — in buildings that may contain offices utilized by the court but also contain other government offices not clearly linked to courts, a system which would almost certainly require more signs clearly demarcating which rooms are gun-friendly and which rooms are gun-free. A sign for every open door, perhaps.
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It's important to note that Abbott's memo is not a ruling but an official registering of his office's opinion in a matter that the Attorney General has yet to actually rule on — all of the 25 complaints the Attorney General has received regarding challenges to gun bans on government owned property are currently pending, Community Impact newspaper reported. It is unclear how much weight the Governor's opinion will have in any of those decisions.
At this point, the only clear thing is that the law's vague word choices leaves a big grey area in the middle of Texas' gun control debate, and gun rights advocates are quickly advancing to claim that ground as their own.
You can read Abbott's memo here: