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Restaurants and other area businesses prepare for the fight to bear arms.

Image: Brian Goldman

Imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon. You stop into Whataburger to pick up lunch with your kids in tow, the only thing on your mind remembering which kid doesn’t want ketchup on his burger, which kid only wants ketchup on his burger, and whether you want to add jalapenõs to your own. You place your order and are pulling out your wallet to pay when a man walks in with a Sig Sauer strapped to his belt. He’s not in any kind of uniform; he’s not wearing a badge. He’s just a guy with his gun, and you’re just a guy with his kids. Are you okay with this scenario? Maybe so. Or maybe you can’t understand why a guy would need to bring his gun into a fast-food restaurant, and you decide to leave without your burgers.

Whataburger has long bet that a good portion of its customers belong to the latter group, hence its company-wide policy against open carry, which has been legal for years in other states where the chain operates, from Arizona to Arkansas. In advance of the new statewide law that goes into effect in Texas this January 1—the much-discussed House Bill 910 that makes Texas the 45th state to allow residents to openly carry and display their handguns—the Corpus Christi–based company recently reiterated that policy.

“We’ve had many customers and employees tell us they’re uncomfortable being around someone with a visible firearm who is not a member of law enforcement,” president and CEO Preston Atkinson wrote in a public statement, “and as a business, we have to listen and value that feedback.”

In response, Second Amendment activists began calling for a boycott of the burger joint, accusing it of refusing to recognize the state’s new gun laws. But restaurants and other businesses in Texas are perfectly entitled, by virtue of the new law itself, to opt out. All they have to do is post signage that prohibits open carry and/or concealed weapons, and anyone carrying a firearm past such a sign will be subject to a misdemeanor charge. (Ed. note: An earlier version of this story classified the charge as a felony rather than a misdemeanor; we regret the error.)

The thing is, there’s still a great deal of confusion surrounding the impending changes, as business associations large and small, reluctant to enter the quagmire of gun control politics, have been slow to provide guidance to private entities that may want to ban open carry. (The Greater Houston Restaurant Association didn’t even return Houstonia’s requests for comment.) As a result, getting those signs up in the first place is proving tougher than expected.

And in fact, rules for the necessary signage are complicated. “Business owners that want to ban guns from their property must post a new sign that adheres to strict wording, colors and text size,” says Terry McBurney, president of the Greater Montgomery County Restaurant Association, one of the few restaurant associations to provide assistance in advance of the new gun laws. Those colors, the Texas Department of Public Safety mandates, must be contrasting. The lettering must be block, and at least one-inch high, for maximum legibility, with the notice in both English and Spanish, posted “conspicuously” at the entrance to the business itself. Any sign that isn’t absolutely perfect, down to the letter, will be null and void. 

Undoubtedly, Second Amendment activists will be scrutinizing the new signage, as they’ve done with current concealed-weapons postings, using social media to call out businesses that got some detail wrong—including a Chili’s in San Antonio and a Chipotle in Dallas—and showing up flash mob–style at these establishments with guns. (The only thing a restaurant can do in such a situation is kick a customer out for trespassing.)

Of course, it’s up to restaurants themselves to both parse the new law and its requirements and decide how its customers will be best served. But it’s a good bet that come the new year, we’ll be seeing lots of new signs. In fact, we could find only one Houston proprietor who said he wouldn’t put one up, and he technically doesn’t even have a restaurant yet. “I will definitely allow it in any of my establishments where it is legal to do so,” said Brandon Young, owner of Moon Tower Inn and Voodoo Queen, of open carry. But both of those businesses have alcohol sales greater than 50 percent of total sales, meaning no guns of any kind are allowed on the premises under current and pending law. (His next project, however, a barbecue joint called B.R. Young’s Lost Indian set to open on Navigation in 2016, could very well allow open carry, depending on how much alcohol is served.)

Lisa Carnley, the owner of Cajun Stop in East Downtown, meanwhile, was one of a great number of Houston restaurant owners who told us they’d soon be investing in new signs. “I carry but will not open carry,” she said. “I have decided to not allow it in my business, not because I don’t support it, but because I don’t think it’s safe for my employees and my staff and for the curiosity of small children.” To those offended by her decision, Carnley offered a Whataburger-esque reply: “We’re not taking away anyone’s rights; we’re practicing our own and looking out for the best interest of our customers.”

Want to learn more about the new open carry laws? Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland is holding an informational meeting and Q&A session on Wednesday, Nov. 4 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Learning Development Center at 4501 Leeland St. This meeting is free and open to the public. Click here for more info.

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