By: Jessica Shorten
HEMPSTEAD, TX – On August 12, 2016, the Open Carry Texas and Texas Carry organizations held a joint group protest outside of the Waller County courthouse. Roughly 40 people showed up from both organizations with their firearms at their sides to join Terry Holcomb, Founder of Texas Carry, and C.J. Grisham, President of Open Carry Texas, in protesting Waller County’s interpretation of Texas open carry laws. The Texas open carry laws state firearms cannot be on the premises of a court, whereas Waller County says guns are prohibited on any property that a court is on, which would include the courthouse with many different public offices that are not supposed to be affected by the law. This nit picking of the law has caused an onslaught of problems for both sides.
Terry Holcomb, a 2nd Amendment activist from Tyler, Texas, has been working to gain more rights for gun activists by filing complaints in 76 counties under similar circumstances. He founded Texas Carry in 2013 with John-Michael Gillaspy after an incident in which he was arrested for carrying an 1899 black powder pistol replica.
When Holcomb filed a complaint with Waller County, the county took legal action against Holcomb by suing him. The lawsuit seeks a court remedy to whether Penal Code 46.03(a)(3) prohibits an individual from carrying firearms or other weapons through the entire building or just the court room and court offices. When asked about the case, Holcomb said, “We were very surprised to get the suit. You do not expect to be sued by your own government for exercising your First Amendment right.”
Grisham spoke at the protest as people gathered with their firearms in front of the courthouse and filed their own complaints against Waller County. He said, “Nobody is arguing about taking a gun into a courtroom, what we’re arguing about is having access to public services.” In Waller County, the courthouse contains government offices such as the County Clerk and the Elections Division. Grisham feels Texas laws allow open carry when a citizen visits these types of public services. He quoted Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion which states guns are not allowed on the premises of a court, but then defines premises as a building or portion of a building. Grisham said, “If the legislature intended to for you to keep guns out of the [entire] courthouse, why would they say ‘or a portion of a building’?”
In 2015, a similar complaint filed by Open Carry Texas in McLennan County resulted in the county relocating non-judicial offices from the courthouse to another county owned building where open carry is no longer an issue.
David Amad along with several others went into the Waller County Courthouse to file their own complaints, but were informed complaints had to be filed at the District Attorney’s office. After going to the DA’s office, they were instructed to return to the County Clerk’s office to file their complaint. When they spoke to County Clerk Debbie Hollan, she directed them back to the District Attorney’s office, saying the County Clerk’s office doesn’t handle complaints. At this point, Grisham explained how similar complaints have been filed in 63 other counties where the County Clerk accepted their complaint. Amad and Grisham assumed Waller County should be following the same basic procedures. Amad, who was frustrated with the entire situation, then set his complaint on the County Clerk’s desk, after which everyone else followed suit and walked out.
“Today, this is about the people and their right to be able to petition and redress their grievances with their government.” Holcomb stated afterwards. “Any gun-free zone is a place for victims to be shot.”
Assistant D.A. Sean Whittmore argued Holcomb’s point stating Penal Code 46.03(a)(3) in which any place that holds a government court is a gun free zone. He said, “If we are going to allow guns into a facility where we’re trying to seek justice for victims, we will be putting victims at risk.”
Prisoners are usually sent through the public entrance, which is the same entrance as victims and witnesses, and according to Whittmore, if people were allowed to carry guns into that area; it would “pose a significantly higher risk of violence.” They only have one set of metal detectors at the entrance and have very limited room to work with, and should an incident such as a shootout occur, they would have little to no time to respond before tragedy could strike.
Whittmore also referenced an incident in 1905 at the Waller County Courthouse in which a shooting occurred outside the courthouse during a hearing about a petition started by the Prohibition movement. The shooting resulted in 4 deaths including John M. Pinckney, who was a then current U. S. Congressman from Texas.
Other courthouse-related shootings have occurred, including the shooting of Assistant D.A. Mark Hasse in Dallas in 2013 by Eric Williams, a fellow lawyer prosecuted for theft. In 2005, a violent shootout occurred in the Tyler, Texas courthouse parking lot between a man and the police after he shot his wife and son in the Tyler courthouse parking lot. The courthouse is a place where disputes from all aspects of life are resolved; citizens and government employees should be able to do their jobs without the threat of violence.
One of the questionable aspects of the lawsuit is the inclusion of a $100,000 monetary punishment. When asked about the monetary damages in the lawsuit against Holcomb, Whittmore responded, “We are not seeking any monetary damages from Mr. Holcomb, and probably will not be asking for any kind of attorney’s fees; but anytime you file a lawsuit, you actually have to file it within the jurisdictional limits of the court and so there’s certain form language that has to be in the lawsuit whether you actually want those damages or not.”
The Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office released a statement on August 10, 2016 stating that based on the findings and the fact the county agreed there were non-judicial offices within the courthouse, Waller County was given a 15-day notice to take the signs down. As of now, the signs are still up, but the county plans to respond.