In early June, after spending several hours at the St. Louis Zoo, an out-of-work bodyguard named Sam Peyton approached a security guard. A year earlier, Missouri voters had approved a constitutional amendment that declared the right to keep and bear arms “inalienable,” but around the park hung signs that said guns were prohibited. Peyton’s firearm was stowed in his car, though he still had an empty holster on his waistband. He showed it to the guard and inquired about the signs, which he thought ran counter to the law. Peyton was promptly asked to leave the grounds and told that, if he didn’t, the cops would be called.
The dispute did not end there. Peyton got in touch with a friend in Ohio named Jeffry Smith, a 56-year-old Second Amendment activist. Smith, according to his GoFundMe page, then contacted the zoo and asked “what (legal) authority they had to post signage.” When he did not receive a response, he “put the Zoo, the authorities, and the media on notice of his intention…to carry a handgun openly and/or concealed” onto the property during a visit that would occur sometime between June 13 and June 20. He did not mention a desire to see any of the exotic animals on the premises, such as the cotton-top tamarin, the slender-tailed meerkat, or the Somali wild ass. Instead, in a rather no-frills manner, he publicized the event on Facebook as the “St. Louis Zoo — Firearm Rights Challenge.”
The announcement prompted a reply, though not necessarily the one Smith was seeking. The zoo took out a temporary restraining order, saying Smith could not carry a weapon into the venue. In the end, he obeyed the order. On June 13, Smith entered the zoo wearing an empty holster. He strolled to the far end of the entryway, took a sip of bottled water, and walked out.
As far as acts of civil disobedience go, Smith’s fell somewhat short of history-making. Nonetheless, it made national news, due in part to its place in an ongoing story. His protest was the latest iteration in a campaign to erase certain boundaries concerning firearms in American society. Second Amendment advocates have called to allow guns, concealed and openly-carried, in schools, hospitals, and churches — safe spaces where, per the social contract, human beings agree upon entry to do no harm. The goal is to show, through exposure and habituation, that firearms are not inconsistent with this idea. Zoos, being havens of innocence that cater to wide-eyed children, are especially symbolic venues for waging that campaign. Smith’s incursion would only be the first of its kind.
The latest skirmishes have taken place in Texas, where a law passed in September making it unambiguously legal to bring concealed guns onto most kinds of public property. As it happened, the zoos in both Houston and Dallas displayed signs prohibiting guns. Second Amendment attorney Edwin Walker, of Texas Law Shield, went after Houston first. On September 3, in a letter sent to the zoo and the parks and recreation department there, he explained that the privately operated venue sits on property owned by the city and demanded that the signs be taken down. Less than two weeks later, the zoo complied (though on November 25, the signs were reinstalled).
Emboldened, Walker took the fight to Dallas. But its zoo, which also sits on public land, refuses to acquiesce. In October, he filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General. Around that time, he told the Associated Press, “I am not anti-zoo,” adding, “I guarantee there’s not going to be a license-holder that’s going to go to the zoo and shoot a baby giraffe in front of schoolchildren.” The AG’s office has yet to take action on his grievance, but the Dallas facility thinks it has the upper hand. Both amusement parks and education centers can opt out of the law, and the zoo has argued that it qualifies as both. The stakes are high: Another new Texas law will allow persons with concealed carry permits the option of openly displaying their handguns in public. Come January 1, when the law takes effect, that could create some jarring tableaus at a place like the Dallas Zoo.
Over the summer, I spoke with Smith about his crusade. He referred to himself as an “ambassador for gun owners and gun rights” and said that openly carrying a firearm was “a form of outreach.” His explanation dovetails neatly with the broader goal of the movement, which is to normalize guns so they are no longer objects of fear, but simply objects. If it is okay to carry a gun in a zoo, it is arguably okay to carry a gun anywhere.
I asked Smith what he thought about the anxieties his form of protest provokes. “They could have a reaction to my oversized stomach,” he said. “People are going to have a reaction to everything and nothing.”
[Photo: Flickr user Tamako the Jaguar]