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'Gunfight' pits locals against state officials in Texas

A new gunfight is developing in Texas pitting local officials who want to ban carrying handguns in some public buildings against state officials who insist the law allows the bans only in courtrooms and offices directly supporting the courts.

The battle is coming to a head now because, after a series of complaints, the office of the state attorney general notified a number of local jurisdictions that they can expand the scope of the bans.

One of those jurisdictions was Dallas County, where commissioners on Thursday voted to comply with the orders from the state while they consider whether they want to challenge them in court.

The county has banned guns from an entire government building in Dallas because two of its rooms are courtrooms, and there are several other related offices nearby.

But the building also houses a number of other offices, and AG Ken Paxton had warned the commissioners that state law doesn’t allow them to ban guns there, too.

The dispute could have a long-term impact as more towns, cities and counties align with President Obama’s gun-control agenda, despite possible conflicts with the Second Amendment.

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Obama repeatedly has pushed for Congress to curb gun rights, mostly unsuccessfully. In January, he announced the most recent step in his anti-gun campaign, requiring that sellers at gun shows be licensed firearms dealers, a lengthy and laborious process, and conduct background checks.

The news caused gun stocks to spike, with Smith & Wesson up 10 percent and Sturm Ruger up nearly 7 percent.

Gun-rights advocates have simultaneously pointed out that Obama’s been more aggressive against gun rights than any recent president. But he’s also been the most successful “gun salesman” ever, with his orders and legislative agenda prompting a rise in weapon and ammo sales.

Obama contends his executive orders are legal, including his order to investigate the recipients of federal benefits, such as Social Security or veterans benefits, to find whether they can be banned from possessing weapons.

In Texas, the law allows a state agency or political subdivision to post a sign that carriers of weapons cannot enter if the premises are “a government court or offices utilized by the court.”

However, after a complaint was filed, Paxton’s office found local governments banning weapons in other locations.

His letter to Clay Jenkins, a judge in Dallas County, warned that a citizen had complained that there were signs banning those carrying weapons “outside the entrance to the Dallas County Government Center … as well as inside the entry hall, warning handgun license holders not to enter the premises with their handguns.”

The letter from Paxton’s office said the complaint “further states the complainant inquired about the signs and was informed by the clerk’s office of the justice of the peace court that the prohibition against the carrying of handguns applied to the entire building.”

That building, the letter noted, holds a justice of the peace court, a county tax office, a county constable and a county clerk’s office.

“While the government center houses government courts, not all of the offices located in the government center are courts or offices essential to the operation of the courts,” the letter continued.

“The penal code does not allow a political subdivision to 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 that multipurpose building.”

Among the managers of public buildings notified of the possible violations were those running the Brazos County Courthouse, the McLennan County Courthouse, Dallas Zoo, Austin City Hall and the Mineola Nature Preserve, officials said. A total of 60 complaints have been filed, and while in some places gun bans have been affirmed, managers of other locations have taken down signs as the investigations continue, officials said.

The Dallas newspaper reported the commissioners in Dallas County said they would remove the signs from their building entrances to comply, at least for now.

“The commissioners indicated they want to keep guns out of an entire government building in northwest Dallas, something Paxton has said is unconstitutional. But while commissioners decide whether to sue, they are immediately removing signs from the building’s entrance that state guns are prohibited. Those signs will now only be posted outside the building’s two courtrooms,” the report said.

The report said Judge Russell Roden had told the commissioners that the attorney general was ignoring the “legislative history” of the issue.

He argued that it’s very clear that a ban can extend “to the entire courthouse.”

Reports said McLennan County and Brazos County were challenging the attorney general, but there were no details on any action against them.

The letter from Paxton’s office noted state law allows a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 and not more than $1,500 for the first violation, and not less than $10,000 and not more than $10,500 for any subsequent violation.”

At Gun Owners of America, there was a call for “uproarious applause” for Paxton for giving citizens “the right and freedom to organize around this issue to police local governments and keep them accountable.”

“Texas citizens who are licensed to carry a firearm are taking fire in their home state, but the state government is refusing to let them go down in flames,” the report said.

It cited the AG’s efforts to “investigate and potentially penalize any local government entity found to be improperly or illegally posting signs that bar licensed concealed carry citizens from carrying handguns on their premises.”

It was Senate Bill 273, approved just last year, that created a procedure for citizens to file complaints about the gun-ban signs.

“We still have a ways to go but we will continue to work hard and fight for Texas citizens right to lawfully carry,” Texas Carry founder Terry Holcomb Sr. said in the report. “We will also continue working to hold local governments accountable for following the law.”

The Texas debate will center on what lawmakers meant years ago when they addressed gun-free zones.

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