Zoo decides against ‘open carry’

BROWNSVILLE — Gladys Porter Zoo has implemented a no-open-carry policy in the wake of the state’s new “open carry” gun law, which makes it legal to openly carry a firearm in places that previously only allowed concealed carry.

Patrick Burchfield, the zoo’s director, said his institution has allowed concealed carry for years without incident, though open carry is something different.

“It would affect attendance, particularly since we serve people from all over the country that are not from South Texas and don’t have quite the same take on open carry,” he said. “We’re trying to balance it. We don’t want to infringe on anyone’s rights. At the same time, we can’t afford to lose zoo visitors who would be fearful.”

Although some zoos around the state have elected to allow open carry, Gladys Porter Zoo’s policy matches that of the Houston Zoo, whose management argues that they’re on firm ground legally because of the zoo’s role as an educational facility.

According to the Texas Penal Code Sec. 46.03, among the places it’s still not legal to carry a firearm openly are “any grounds or building on which an activity sponsored by a school or educational institution is being conducted.”

“Since the zoo’s inception, education has been one of our top missions, and is probably our number one mission, as we work with several school districts,” Burchfield said.

He said Gladys Porter Zoo offers formal classes to 22,000 students a year and each summer gives out large numbers of tickets to every school district in Texas Education Agency Region 1, which includes seven counties including Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy.

“We serve Brownsville Independent School District, we serve San Benito Independent School District, we serve every school district in the Valley,” Burchfield said. “On a daily basis, we have school groups.”

In places where it is allowed, open and concealed carriers alike must possess a concealed handgun permit. Zoos in cities such as Dallas and Forth Worth have gone further than GPZ, banning concealed firearms as well as open carry. Those policies have generated a number of complaints to the state attorney general’s office from gun-rights advocates.

Burchfield said he’d rather not have to fight the issue in court but suspects a court battle — somewhere — is inevitable. Meanwhile, Burchfield, who holds a concealed carry license and is rated an expert with a pistol and a rifle, questions the effectiveness of open carry in an active-shooter situation.

“The very first person who is a target by a bad guy is the person with the firearm,” he said. “I think it’s a bigger deterrent to know (guns) are out there but not visible.”

Burchfield said GPZ’s open carry policy hasn’t drawn any complaints yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

“I would hope that reason would prevail, and that a reasonable person would assume that not everyone reacts the same way to weapons,” he said. “And in a place where you have small children, like amusement parks, zoos and so on, that’s not where you parade around with guns.”