The next time you take your family to the Houston Zoo, you can bring your licensed handgun along, too.
The zoo lifted its gun ban after receiving a demand letter from an independent attorney with Texas Law Shield, a Houston-based legal services company focusing on gun rights issues, the Houston Chronicle first reported yesterday.
Backed by a recently-passed Texas bill authorizing the Attorney General to investigate and possibly fine "political subdivisions" that post signs prohibiting weapons where concealed handgun license holders are allowed to carry, T. Edwin Walker sent a letter to the zoo just two days after the bill went went into effect on September 1.
In the letter, Walker argued that the zoo is on property owned by the City of Houston and leased to the Houston Zoo Development Corporation, which Walker said is a local government economic development organization. The zoo itself is a privately-funded non-profit. For years, Walker said, he had heard from gun owners questioning the legality of a sign at the zoo's front entrance banning weapons under section 30.06 of the Texas Penal Code, which allows businesses and private property owners to ban guns on their property. The week after Walker sent his letter, he visited the zoo and saw that the sign had been taken down.
"I guarantee there is no license holder who is going to go to the zoo in anticipation of shooting a giraffe in front of a bunch of school children," Walker said in an interview. "The issue is just that this is a place where the government is not allowed to tell people that they can't carry a licensed handgun. The Texas government has recognized that people have the right to defend themselves. How do they do that? With a gun."
City crime statistics (and common sense) indicate the Houston Zoo is hardly the most unsafe place in town. It sits in a crime beat that stretches from the Southwest Freeway in the north to Old Spanish Trail in the south, with Main Street and Highway 288 serving as the east and west border, respectively. Since January 2010, 11 murders have been reported in that zone, and none of them happened at the zoo. By comparison, there have been 40 reported murders during the same time in the zone that encompasses Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood.
Still, Walker said he wouldn't necessarily feel safe and sound at the Houston Zoo without his gun.
"Unfortunately we live in a world where there are people who are intent to do harm unto others," Walker said. "I don't want to be punched in the face or stabbed with a knife. We are allowed to be secure in the knowledge that if somebody does attack me, I have the best tool available to defend myself. That tool is a gun."
This isn't the first time a gun rights group has attempted to get guns in zoos— however, it does appear to be the first attempt that actually ended with a gun ban being removed.
Missouri beat us at the guns-in-zoos game in June when, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, an Ohio gun-rights activist raised similar arguments in an attempt to lift the gun ban at the St. Louis Zoo. But unlike Houston, the St. Louis Zoo held firm on its ban by claiming it is an educational facility, where guns are prohibited by law. The zoo eventually filed a restraining order against the Ohio man after he repeatedly entered the zoo wearing an empty holster in what he said was an act of protest.
The Houston Zoo has an extensive education program and is a popular destination for school field trips. The Texas Penal Code prohibits people from carrying a firearm on "any grounds or building on which an activity sponsored by a school or educational institution is being conducted." Walker said that he does not believe this part of the code applies to the zoo.
"You can get educated anywhere— at a movie theater, an auditorium, whatever," Walker contends. "It's not just the fact that someone is getting 'educated' that makes someplace an educational institution. Just because they serve an educational purpose or are used in an educational way by some people, that is a far cry from fitting under any definition of an educational institution that’s found in the Texas Penal Code."
According to the Chron, the Houston Zoo said it is looking into the "legal implications" of Walker's request. It remains to be seen how this might effect other non-profits that lease government property or work with government agencies for a contract, although for now it appears as though the Houston Zoo is in a uniquely complex situation from a legal standpoint.
"We do recognize that this has the potential to confuse or concern our guests and members and we want to emphasize that this will not alter our number-one priority, which is the safety of our guests, employees and animals,” the zoo said in a statement. According to its website, the zoo bans a number of items "for the safety of the animals," including plastic straws, glass bottles, and whistles.
Walker said he believes allowing people to carry licensed guns would actually be less dangerous for the animals than allowing people to carry plastic straws or glass bottles.
"Obviously, people would have the opportunity to throw straws or bottles into animal cages on a daily basis if those items were not kept out," Walker said. "But I think the chance that someone would shoot an animal will be lower now that the gun ban is lifted. Before, was there any defense if a madman went into the zoo to shoot it up? If I'm at the zoo I would like to have an opportunity to save myself, my family and perhaps even a few animals from being shot by a crazy person with a gun. Because I know I'm not a crazy person. What the removal of this sign does is it puts the law abiding citizen on equal footing with the crazy person."
Here's the two-page letter Walker sent to the zoo: