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Commissioners Court retains firearms ban for employees

Wednesday, January 13, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A political shootout at Travis County Commissioners Court ended with victory for proponents of tougher gun restrictions on Tuesday.

The court voted 4-1 to update Travis County Code to include language that forbids employees of departments that report to the court from carrying deadly weapons on county property or in county vehicles. The language includes a loophole for peace officers, corrections officers and security officers.

The action was precipitated by a new state law that allows licensed gun owners to openly carry their weapons in public with few restrictions. Travis County Code Chapter 10 reiterated the old law that banned guns from public property. On Tuesday morning, the court voted 4-0 with Commissioner Brigid Shea temporarily off the dais to strike that chapter from the code, a small clause banning smoking on county property notwithstanding.

More controversial, however, was the decision over whether to allow county employees to bring weapons to work. Because the court does not have dominion over the employees of elected officials, the proposed restrictions applied only to workers in departments such as Transportation and Natural Resources, the Purchasing Office and the Planning and Budget Office.

Tony Robertson of the Human Resources Department told the court that his division sent out a survey after the item was delayed in December. “To be exact, the total number we received back from the county employees was 301 responses,” Robertson reported. “From that response, 75 percent of those responses were against the open-carry issue, and 25 percent of the employees were for the open-carry issue.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican on the court, took small issue with Robertson’s methodology, saying, “There’s a fuzzy line between when you start talking about ‘carry,’ whether it’s totally concealed or whether it’s open-carry. So I do want to make that distinction.”

Daugherty noted that several comments attached to the survey indicated that more than two dozen respondents did not have a problem with allowing their co-workers to carry concealed weapons on the job. “I just wanted people to be aware of that,” said Daugherty.

Although the ban does not apply to workers with the District Attorney’s Office or the Tax Office, both District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant were at Tuesday’s meeting to provide their perspectives.

Lehmberg declared right off the bat that she would continue to forbid her employees from arming themselves. She noted that the new state law includes special provisions for certain places, such as courthouses, polling places and schools, where no one is allowed to carry guns.

“I am going to take every opportunity I’m given to fall into those exceptions so that the public may not bring guns into any of our workplaces,” Lehmberg said. “It’s just too dangerous. It just is. I don’t want my employees in danger. I don’t want other public members who are there to be in danger.”

Elfant said he would align his department’s policy with the Commissioners Court’s, but he noted that allowing employees to carry guns at work could lead to dangerous situations.

“I mean, the newspapers are full of shootings all over the country,” Elfant said. “People left a gun open in their purse, in a desk drawer that was unsecured, people forgot a gun in a bathroom, people made the poor judgments when they thought somebody was reaching for a gun and they were reaching for a pen.”

Daugherty said he respected those arguments, but he raised questions about the double standard of an environment wherein the public can carry weapons but employees cannot. “If we cannot keep the (armed) public out, I want to have the ability to protect myself,” Daugherty said.

After the discussion, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt delayed further action pending a closed-door huddle with county attorneys during the afternoon’s executive session. Afterward, when Eckhardt gaveled the court back into regular session, the vote to ban employees from carrying deadly weapons to work passed 4-1 with Daugherty alone in the opposition.

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