AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas attorney general warned counties on Tuesday that if they try to ban guns from county buildings, including courthouses, he will sue them.
Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Waller County after a man complained about a sign on the county courthouse in Hempstead, warning licensed gun-owners that if they try to bring a gun inside they could be charged with a felony. Hempstead, the county seat, is 60 miles northwest of Houston.
As is the case in many small Texas counties, the courthouse in Waller County, pop. 45,213, is a one-stop shop for all things governmental: It also houses the county treasurer and elections offices.
Until a few years ago, courthouse visitors could come and go freely, but now there’s a metal detector on the first floor, staffed by sheriff’s officers.
Waller County kicked off the legal battle on July 6 when it sued Terry Holcomb Jr. — the man who complained to Paxton’s office. The county sought a declaration from Waller County Court that its no-gun signs on the courthouse do not violate state law.
Paxton interprets state law as banning guns from courtrooms and “offices essential to the operation of the government court” within all-purpose government buildings, but not in other parts of the building. He told Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” Duhon as much in a July 22 letter.
County judges in Texas are chief executives of their county commission — not judicial officers.
Waller County’s response to Paxton’s letter brought Paxton’s lawsuit Tuesday, in Travis County Court.
“On August 4, 2016, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dorsey responded
via letter advising, without adequate explanation, that the county views its entire
courthouse building as ‘a place where firearms and other weapons are prohibited’ under § 46.03(a)(3) of the Texas Penal Code,” Paxton says in his complaint.
“She also advised that the county is of the opinion that ‘Texas law prohibits firearms inside the entire building where the sign is posted.'”
Paxton warned Waller County in a notice letter it could be fined for the courthouse gun ban, but county leaders dug in their heels.
They sent another letter complaining about the threatened fines and made it clear they were not going to drop their lawsuit against Holcomb. Paxton’s office received the letter on Aug. 29, the day Paxton sued the county.
Paxton is a staunch promoter of Texans’ gun rights, which became more entrenched with passage of Texas House Bill 910 in June 2015. It allows concealed-gun permit holders to carry handguns openly in shoulder and belt holsters.
There are some limits: Handguns are banned from hospitals, jails and prisons, churches and some places where alcohol is served or sold. Business owners can post signs banning customers from openly carrying in their stores.
That law, combined with the recent mass shootings, confused some officials.
Several Texas district attorneys asked Paxton for guidance on whether they can ban openly carried and concealed guns from government buildings and courthouses.
Paxton has made his feelings known. Any city that dares to ban guns completely in such offices will see him in court.
He sued Austin, its mayor and City Council in late July for trying to ban guns at City Hall.
In his Tuesday lawsuit, Paxton sued Waller County Judge Duhon, its four county commissioners and the county clerk, all in their official capacities.
Life is laid back in rural Waller County, compared to its hectic neighbor Harris County, home of Houston.
But Waller has had its fill of controversy and the attendant news trucks since July 2015, when Sandra Bland, a young black woman, was found dead in her cell at the county jail in Hempstead.
Her death set off months of sit-ins by protesters at the courthouse who blame the sheriff and county jailers for not watching her in the jail. Bland’s mother filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the county that has been sent to mediation.
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