McLennan County commissioners have less than 15 days to take down the “no weapons” signs at the courthouse or challenge the Texas attorney general’s opinion.
The county Monday was notified by the Attorney General’s Office that the signs at the entrances of the courthouse and the annex are in violation of state law and must be removed unless commissioners decide to challenge the opinion. The letter states that the county cannot prohibit licensed handgun holders from entering into an entire building simply because the courts or the offices of the courts are located in a portion of a multipurpose building.
While the courthouse and annex house government courts, not all of the offices are essential to the operations of the courts, including the commissioners courtroom and the district attorney’s office, according to the letter.
Commissioners on Dec. 23 unanimously approved a new policy to maintain the ban on guns in the county courthouse and annex in response to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion regarding in which facilities local governments can prohibit weapons.
At the time, the county’s district judges, the justice of the peace for Precinct 1 and the county court-at-law judges submitted documents to commissioners saying every part of the courthouse is essential to courtroom operations and supported the ban.
County Judge Scott Felton said he is disappointed in the attorney general’s opinion.
Felton said many of the commissioners are strong supporters of the Second Amendment, but do not feel that a courthouse, where a lot of contentious issues are resolved, is the right place for guns to be carried. The topic isn’t included on the agenda for the commissioners meeting Tuesday because the letter just arrived.
Felton said he wants the county to challenge the opinion.
Terry Holcomb, Texas Carry founder and executive director, said the attorney general’s ruling is abundantly clear that multipurpose courthouses can’t exclude license holders from the entire building.
Since McLennan County prohibited CHL holders from carrying throughout the entire building, Texas Carry notified the attorney general’s office.
Holcomb said the attorney general’s response isn’t so much about winning as it is clarity for residents. Residents are expected to follow the law and county officials should be held to the same standard, he said.
Holcomb said it is also important that residents aren’t arrested for carrying in the courthouse when they are permitted.
“We’re just pleased that we’re actually getting progress on clarity,” he said.
The county sent a letter to the attorney general’s office Dec. 30 stating the commissioners court determined the courthouse and the annex — which is accessed through the courthouse — are almost entirely devoted to courts and court functions, including the hallways, common areas, restrooms, stairwells and elevators, among other spots.
“The Legislature obviously intended for Section 46.03 to protect judges and others involved in the judicial process. It would appear inconsistent to assume that this protection was only intended within the confines of a courtroom or office where common hallways and areas are involved; essentially assuming that people are free to carry handguns in the same hallways and common areas used by the judges, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, parties, etc.,” the county’s letter stated.
Attorney Mike Dixon, who represents McLennan County and its officeholders, said Monday the county still is evaluating its options after receiving the letter.
Dixon said the county needs to act within the 15-day time frame; otherwise, the attorney general’s office could file suit for civil penalties.
Dixon said he still thinks the county is in the right. He said leaders are still trying to determine how they could provide enough security in the courthouse and annex with licensed holders free to roam the two buildings.
Commissioner Ben Perry said he respects the attorney general’s opinion, but he does not agree with it.
Perry said the opinion jeopardizes the safety and stability of the criminal courts.
“Now, because our entire courthouse is going to be deemed a zone that CHL carriers can come in, or are permitted, the cost we’re going to endure to cover all the courtrooms with security personnel and the ability to check for weapons, it’s going to be a huge expense,” Perry said. “I just don’t think it’s fair to the taxpayer for the AG to basically send down an unfunded mandate. If we didn’t secure the courtroom, the first time something happened, who’s going to be jumped on? It’s going to be the commissioners.”
Commissioners Kelly Snell and Will Jones said they had not had time to review the document so they didn’t feel comfortable commenting.
Commissioner Lester Gibson could not be reached for comment.
Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court said he is not happy about the decision, but also didn’t have enough time Monday to fully examine the AG’s opinion.
“I have not read it yet, so I can’t discuss the finer points about it,” he said.