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Challenge to St. Louis Zoo's weapons ban fuels Missouri gun debate

Challenge to St. Louis Zoo's weapons ban fuels Missouri gun debate

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ST. LOUIS • Gun rights advocate Jeffry Smith says he won’t be packing heat as he originally planned when he heads to the St. Louis Zoo on Saturday.

Smith, 56, of the Cincinnati area, says he believes the zoo has failed to prove its ban on guns and other weapons is legal, but he will not defy a city judge’s order barring him from entering the zoo with a firearm. He had planned to go armed with a holstered .45-caliber handgun Saturday afternoon — and invited other armed zoo-goers to join him— to test the zoo’s policy, a move that has put the St. Louis Zoo in the crosshairs of the gun rights debate in Missouri.

After Smith announced his protest, the zoo sought a restraining order blocking Smith from entering the zoo with a gun or weapon. St. Louis Circuit Judge Joan Moriarty granted the restraining order Friday. The order also applies to anyone working “in concert” with Smith and is in effect until a hearing set for 1:30 p.m. on June 22.

Smith’s zoo challenge comes as the city reviews some of its gun ordinances after voters last year passed a Missouri Constitutional amendment that declared the right to keep and bear arms “unalienable.”

St. Louis City Counselor Winston Calvert said city police would enforce the judge’s order Saturday. Calvert wouldn’t say if police would arrest anyone who violates a city ordinance that bans openly carrying guns in public places.

“Our children should not be treated as pawns in the gun control debate,” Calvert said in an email.

By Friday night, about 50 Facebook users on an event page Smith created to publicize his plans had said they would join him. Smith had encouraged people to bring handguns in hip holsters — not rifles or other “long guns.” He wants the zoo to take down signs telling visitors that guns and other weapons aren’t allowed. The signs were posted last July.

In its filing seeking the restraining order, the zoo argued it qualifies as at least four types of public spaces where state law says concealed carry of guns can be restricted: “educational institutions, day care facilities, amusement parks and where a business open to the public chooses to restrict the carrying of firearms by posting signs.”

The zoo’s filing describes its educational mission, an on-site pre-school that “utilizes the entire 90-acre campus of St. Louis Zoo as its classroom,” and camps and field trips for adults and schoolchildren. It also describes “amusement rides/attractions” such as a carousel and the railroad.

The zoo said it had received “a large number” of calls from parents concerned about Smith’s plan, some of whom said they would remove their children from educational programs if firearms were allowed on the zoo’s “campus.”

GUN DEBATE

In August, Missouri lawmakers passed a law that says cities can’t stop people with a concealed-gun permit from openly carrying a weapon. The zoo argues that because state law allows restrictions on where concealed weapons can be carried, those restrictions also apply to open carry.

But Smith and his supporters believe that legal gun owners should be able to open carry anywhere in Missouri, even without a concealed carry permit. 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.

Among Smith’s goals before a judge blocked his plan was to go to the zoo armed and be cited by police for refusing to leave the premises.

Smith said the zoo’s seeking a restraining order against him is actually a victory because it forced the zoo to outline its legal argument to ban guns.

“I consider this a win,” he said. “It’s a win in that they have finally shown their hand.”

Smith says the zoo, by its own description, is “a government agency” and “clearly isn’t an amusement park,” which he sees as profit-making businesses on private property.

A group opposed to guns at the zoo was organizing a protest to counter Smith’s event Saturday.

The signs at the zoo drew attention after a man from Springfield, Mo., said he was asked to leave the zoo on Memorial Day after asking about the signs. Sam Peyton, 40, said he left his own handgun in his car in compliance with the signs but still wore his empty inside-the-waistband holster. He said he and wife visited the zoo, and as he left, he asked security guards about the signs.

They asked if he was armed, and he told them he only had the empty holster. They then asked him to leave, Peyton said.

LEGAL ‘MESS’

Legal experts say Missouri’s gun laws and amendment are at odds with local ordinances.

“Our law, currently, is a mess,” said Anders Walker, a constitutional law professor at St. Louis University. “We need to just let people carry guns or not, and not riddle the law with exceptions.”

Banning guns in certain venues but allowing them elsewhere has forced law-abiding gun owners to store guns in their vehicles where they are vulnerable to theft and can land in the hands of criminals, he said.

“We’ve created a state of confusion with the law that’s creating a dangerous situation,” Waker said.

Peter Joy, a Washington University law professor, said Missouri’s new amendment subjected local laws restricting gun rights to “strict scrutiny,” a higher legal standard than judges have used in the past. With the higher standard, the courts may ultimately favor Smith, Joy said.

“But it’s still unclear how a court would rule, because of an issue of public safety,” he said.

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