McLennan County commissioners on Friday unanimously voted to challenge Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in an effort to continue to keep guns out of the courthouse and annex.
Commissioners agreed to have attorneys take whatever action is necessary to protect the county from Paxton’s command, which is backed by financial penalties. The action the county approved could include conferring with Paxton, defending litigation or filing litigation.
The move comes in response to a letter from the Texas Attorney General’s Office on March 30 saying the county must remove signs at the entrances of the courthouse and annex because the weapons ban violates state law. The letter stated that the county cannot prohibit licensed handgun holders from entering an entire building simply because the courts, or the offices of the court, are located in a portion of a multipurpose building.
The letter came to the county after Texas Carry Inc. informed the Attorney General’s Office that commissioners approved a new policy Dec. 23 to maintain the ban on guns in the county courthouse and annex by anyone but law enforcement.
Six people spoke during the public hearing Friday prior to the vote. Half of them supported fighting to keep concealed handgun license holders from carrying in the courthouse and annex, and the other half said the county needs to follow state law and not enter litigation.
Sheriff Parnell McNamara said there are places where law enforcement should be the only people to carry firearms, and that includes the courthouse and annex. McNamara said it would be dangerous to make guns and weapons available in close proximity to the dangerous criminals and violent gang members who enter the courthouse.
McNamara said protecting people in the courthouse when there are individuals carrying weapons would be “very, very difficult.”
On the other side, local attorney Wes Lloyd said he has no problem with concealed handgun licensees carrying in the courthouse because those are the least dangerous individuals. Individuals who carry must be over 21 years of age, be fingerprinted and pass a background check, he said.
Lloyd said he understands the court is in a difficult position, but it would be inappropriate to litigate the issue with taxpayers’ money. Lloyd said the county simply needs to install a machine at the entrance of the courthouse to swipe handgun licenses as individuals enter.
The order adopted by commissioners states there are myriad other legal authorities which show the attorney general to be acting well beyond the bounds of his jurisdiction and authority in violation of law and in violation of the Texas Constitution. Statutes must be interpreted to avoid unintended or absurd results, and the attorney general’s interpretation would result in “quite absurd and hopefully unintended results,” according to the order.
Judges, jurors, witnesses and others involved in the judicial process could not be adequately protected if someone is permitted to roam the same hallways, common areas, stairwells, elevators and restrooms with handguns, according to the county’s order.
“Despite publicly opining that he does not actually know what ‘premises of any government court or offices utilized by the court’ means, the Attorney General is seeking to impose against McLennan County very expensive financial penalties under a statutory scheme that provides no avenue for the County to appeal before such penalties are incurred,” according to the county document.
“A simple reading of the clear legislative history of the actual provision at issue would inform the Attorney General of the meaning of this statutory provision and . . . the Attorney General has been repeatedly provided with this information but has refused to acknowledge or address this clear legislative intent.”
The order adopted by commissioners states that the legislative history shows lawmakers intended to allow weapons bans at a courthouse or any building housing a court.
Kristi Stapp said she’s the wife of a local attorney who practices family law and criminal law. Having seen some of the cases, Stapp asked the county fight to keep guns out of the courthouse, especially for loved ones and friends who spend so much time there.
‘A bad decision’
“Even the most level-headed person, when their buttons are pushed . . . can become irrational,” she said. “In just one split second, a bad decision can happen.”
CJ Grisham, Open Carry Texas president and CEO, said the law is clear. The county is holding itself to a different standard than its residents by banning licensed lawful citizens from entering the courthouse with a gun.
“If this court is admitting the law is confusing, well, then, the court is required to abide by the statute that is most liberating to the people, that abides by our rights, that respects our rights,” Grisham said. “You’re sitting here telling me that I am a potential threat? That I am a criminal? I’m an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran. I served 20 years in the Army. I worked on a counter terrorism, joint terrorism task force with all levels of law enforcement from federal to local trying to stop terrorism against the United States. I’m a badged and credentialed special agent and yet you won’t let me walk into this building.”
Grisham said the argument that violent felons walk the courthouse and might access a gun doesn’t add up because those individuals should always be kept in a secure area.
Local attorney Denny Lessman said allowing guns in the courthouse puts himself, his clients and their families at risk.
“I am one of about 100 criminal defense attorneys on a felony appointment list and I have been doing this for 12 years and, as such, I state on my own behalf that I am concerned about weapons being accessible to my clients and some of their families,” Lessman said.
Randall Scott Gates, of Moody, said by posting a sign banning residents from carrying where it’s legal, the county is breaking the law and infringing on Texas’ Second Amendment rights.
“The Constitution is not relying on having a competent sheriff who can actually provide security for the courthouse. The Constitution is not contingent on if you can make up a boogeyman so scary that weak-minded people will sacrifice their liberty for security.”