HEMPSTEAD, Texas (CN) – A Texas county can ban guns from its courthouse, a state judge ruled, siding with county officials who sued a gun-rights activist after he complained to the state attorney general about the policy.
Terry Holcomb Sr., who is nicknamed “the open carry preacher,” is the founder and president of Texas Carry Inc., a group that lobbies the Texas Legislature for gun rights and has challenged numerous Texas counties over their restrictions against guns in government buildings.
Holcomb saw a sign in May prohibiting guns on the premises of the Waller County Courthouse in the county seat Hempstead, 60 miles northwest of Houston, and challenged the sign's existence by complaining to county officials.
The signs also warn anyone who flouts the rule they could be charged with a felony.
When Waller County refused to budge, Holcomb complained to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who then sued the county.
Determined to uphold the policy, Waller County sued Holcomb in July, seeking a declaration that its signs do not violate state law.
Waller County District Judge Albert McCaig agreed with the county Monday, saying in a five-page ruling that Texas law “prohibits all firearms and other weapons in the entire government building that houses a court.”
With outrage in his voice, Holcomb told Courthouse News in a Wednesday phone interview the ruling violates his First Amendment rights to petition the government for a redress of his grievances and Texas Government Code 411.209.
That law says a state agency or a political subdivision of the state “may not provide notice by a communication…or by any sign” that a concealed handgun license holder “is prohibited from entering or remaining on a premises or other place owned or leased by the government entity unless license holders are prohibited from carrying a handgun on the premises or other place by Section 46.03 or 46.035, Penal Code.”
Violating entities can face civil fines of up to $1,500 for the first violation and up to $10,500 for subsequent violations.
Section 46.03 of the Texas Penal Code states that firearms aren’t allowed “on the premises of any government court or offices utilized by the court, unless pursuant to written regulations or written authorization of the court.”
How those laws intersect will likely be sorted out by an appeals court because Paxton has issued nonbinding advisory opinions that interpreted 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.
The litigation stems from an open-carry law Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed in June 2015, under which concealed-carry permit holders can carry their handguns openly in shoulder and belt holsters.
The law’s passage made county officials across Texas uncertain if they could ban guns from government buildings and courthouses, and some turned to Paxton for guidance.
As is the case in many small Texas counties, the courthouse in Waller County, which has a population of 45,213, is all-purpose: It also houses the county treasurer and elections offices.
Holcomb said he abided by 411.209 by filing his complaint with Paxton about Waller County’s policy, only to be sued by the county.
“Nobody wants to have to go pay $350 an hour to a lawyer simply because they sent a complaint to a local government and 411.209 specifically requires us to notify the local government if we believe they are in violation before we can get the attorney general involved. It requires us to do that. So I did that and turned around and was sued for it,” he said.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told Houston’s NPR affiliate the ruling is not binding on the rest of the state.
That’s because Paxton’s lawsuit against Waller County is still pending in Austin, after the county refused to drop its case against Holcomb in the face of Paxton’s threats that it could be fined for the courthouse gun ban.
“Unfortunately, the attorney general decided to sue us in Austin. So we’re still going to have to deal with that lawsuit there to hopefully get some clarity for all the counties and cities across the state of Texas,” Mathis told NPR.
Holcomb said Paxton’s lawsuit addresses Waller County’s gun ban, but his legal battle against the county is about protecting his First Amendment rights.
“My position has always been around the First Amendment issue that we’re fighting, not the gun issue. Essentially with a stroke of the pen the judge has declared open-season on our First Amendment rights and our rights to redress grievances against our government and our right to participate in government according to the law in 411.209,” he said.
Paxton said in a statement he expects McCaig’s ruling to be overturned on appeal. Holcomb said he’s already working on an appeal.
“We fully intend to fight this to the highest court necessary, we fully intend to stand in the gap between this oppressive government in Waller County and the citizens of Texas,” Holcomb said.