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Gun rights advocates carry holsters into zoo

Gun rights advocate Jeffry Smith, of suburban Cincinnati, is followed by St. Louis resident Ed Reggi, of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, as he enters the St. Louis Zoo with his empty holster on Saturday, June 13, 2015. At least three men entered the zoo with empty holsters to protest the weapons ban at the zoo. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • An Ohio man who believes everyone has a constitutional right to openly carry a gun into the St. Louis Zoo has been given a two-month extension to mount his legal argument in court.

Jeffry Smith, 56, a gun rights advocate who is challenging the zoo's weapons ban, was scheduled to appear in court Monday afternoon to present his side after the St. Louis Zoo won a temporary restraining order against him June 12. Circuit Judge Joan Moriarty on Friday set a new hearing for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 24 after Smith asked for 60 days to find a lawyer.

The extension means Smith and anyone working “in concert” with Smith "or who has knowledge of this order" is barred from entering the zoo with a gun until after the hearing.

Smith believes Missouri's gun laws and the state's constitutional amendment passed by voters last year guarantee citizens the right to carry guns in publicly-funded institutions such as the zoo, which describes itself as a government entity. Smith says the zoo is justifying its weapons bans with exemptions in state law that don't apply to it, such as the provision for amusement parks.

The zoo has also argued that it qualifies as an educational facility, which can ban guns, because of its preschool that uses "the entire 90-acre campus of the St. Louis Zoo as a classroom."

A day after a judge granted the zoo the temporary restraining order against Smith, Smith entered the zoo unarmed and wearing an empty holster to demonstrate his disapproval of the zoo's weapons ban. The empty holster was also a symbolic move to show support for a fellow gun rights activist Sam Peyton, 40, of Springfield, Mo., who claimed he was harassed by zoo security on Memorial Day and asked to leave when he showed a guard his empty holster as he was leaving the zoo. 

The zoo has disputed Peyton's characterization of the incident that he was asked to leave but has not publicly explained its version of what happened.

Smith lives in a Cincinnati suburb. He led a march of dozens of armed people through downtown St. Louis in October to assert their right to carry guns openly in public despite city ordinance. City police did not arrest anyone then.

Joel Currier is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter here: @joelcurrier.