Can you bring a gun into Marfa City Hall?

Signs outside Marfa City Hall’s front door on Highland Street have, until recently, prohibited carrying firearms into the building.

MARFA — Signs outside Marfa City Hall’s front door on Highland Street have, until recently, prohibited carrying firearms into the building, but in the wake of the El Paso shooting, Co-Interim City Manager Dan Dunlap removed those signs at the direction of Mayor Manny Baeza.

I think disarming your employees and putting up a sign to that effect is an open invitation to someone who wants to do harm to the people inside that building,” Dunlap summed up at the September 10 City Council meeting. Mayor Baeza concurred. Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda pushed back on Dunlap, stating, “The common knowledge that I would share is that places with fewer guns typically have less shootings.”

Marfa’s employee handbook currently prohibits employees from bringing guns to work, though as a contractor and concealed carry permit holder, Dunlap said he is allowed.

The discussion began at a previous council meeting when Councilmember Buck Johnston questioned the removal of the signs, and Dunlap and Baeza explained that the signs had been put up without council approval and were removed after the massacre in El Paso that left 22 dead. Dunlap stated he believes the signs were put up because former City Manager Terry Brechtel simply “doesn’t like guns.”

Johnston pointed out that the signs had also been taken down without council approval, so she requested a discussion about the controversial signs at the September 10 City Council meeting. “I’m looking at this in light of what’s happened to this council recently and for the safety of our employees,” Johnston stated.

Earlier this year, some council members were disturbed when a citizen said he’d kill council for changing parts of the animal ordinance. The citizen later stated it was a joke. Other council members referenced Odessa and El Paso shootings, which have shaken up communities across West Texas and subsequently spiked gun sales in the area.

City Attorney Teresa Todd remarked that, along with the recent loosening of restrictions on weapons in Texas, “The thing that has really changed is that Ken Paxton, our state attorney general, has made it a priority to go after cities that have signs on the front doors.” He successfully defeated the City of Austin’s posting of signs that prohibited guns in their city buildings.

Carrying a gun into Texas municipal courts or court offices is already prohibited, but the signs broadly applied to the City Hall, instead of just covering the Casner Room, where court is held, and Municipal Court Official Cherry Torres’ office.

Todd explained that Torres and Lori Flores, the city’s utility clerk, were both talking about taking license to carry classes. She added that if signs were going to remain down, “I think you should let employees carry, because if everybody else can carry, we should be able to as well.” She then qualified the statement, “It’s not what I want to do.” 

City Secretary Rachel Whatley, who works behind the front desk of City Hall said she was against guns, because she had lost a family member to workplace gun violence.

Whatley said, “I myself, I don’t like guns, but I don’t think a sign would keep anybody from coming in and shooting. I was asked before they took the sign down. Dan did ask, ‘How do you feel about this?’”

Johnston got to the crux of her point in response, explaining the scenario she hopes the signs will prevent. “This is the point though, yes, some crazy person wants to come in and start shooting up, that sign’s not going to prevent him. But this is just a person coming in, he has a gun on him, he gets mad at Lori because he’s charged $40 for a late fee. He pulls out that gun because it’s on him. It’s escalated and he shoots her.”

Ben-Yehuda expanded, “I’d say even, he pulls it out in jest because he’s ridiculous and Lori shoots him. And there we have a death. And she’s reasonably defending herself, and yet somebody has died, and I don’t think that person necessarily deserved it.”

Todd believed that the signs ultimately exist to “send a message,” but Ben-Yehuda countered that council might not even agree what kind of message that sign would send.

At the end of the discussion, Todd said that from a legal perspective the city would be legally “much safer” putting those signs on Torres’ door, rather than outside of City Hall. “But I don’t know if those are her wishes,” Todd said. “I don’t know if she’d rather have the signs or have a glock.”

Johnston offered a compromise to limit open carry in the building and allow concealed carry. Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez said open carry is what really puts people in a panic, and that they receive calls about it.

Councilmember Irma Salgado highlighted the potential legal problems of posting the signs outside of City Hall, even if they are only limiting open carry and allowing concealed. “We can be liable to lawsuit if somebody complains that ‘I was not allowed to carry and I have my license.’”

Todd said that just depends how badly Attorney General Paxton wants to come to Marfa.

Johnston moved forward with a motion to put a sign at the front door of City Hall that limits open carry firearms. “I’m not saying anything about concealed or no firearms, I’m just saying open carry.”

Four council members were in favor of Johnston’s motion, with Councilmember Raul Lara against.

Lara later stated, “I just think in today’s world –– I’ve never thought about carrying a concealed handgun until all this crap in Odessa-Midland. It hit home. If you have a concealed handgun you can really protect yourself and those around you.”

But beyond supporting concealed carry, Lara believes there’s a message sent when someone open carries. “I think if somebody sees an open carry, it’s like, ‘Oh wow, he’s got one.’ So if they were thinking about doing something bad in public and then they see somebody, that’ll make them think twice.”

For now, citizens are permitted to concealed carry in Marfa City Hall and prohibited from carrying weapons into the office of Cherry Torres and the Casner Room during Municipal Court.