You CAN Fight City Hall

Over the past several weeks, we’ve covered how states, counties and cities, and individuals have pushed back against unjust laws. States and counties/cities seem to have the most success, with individuals standing up for their beliefs at their own peril.

Which then begs the question of whether individuals can be successful in standing up against unjust application of law? What can you do to get the government to comply? 

The following recounts how I and a group of activists got the city of Glendale, Arizona, to follow the law regarding checking firearms in city facilities.

Swimming Upstream

Arizona has always been pro-gun, and a lot of people in the state carry firearms for defense. Government buildings have long prohibited carrying firearms inside, without any means to secure a personally owned firearm. This meant leaving your gun in your car, where it could be stolen. If you came by some other mode of transportation (bus, cab, on foot), you were out of luck. 

In the late 1990s, Arizona changed the law to require local municipalities to “provide temporary and secure storage...readily accessible on entry into the establishment...and allow for the immediate retrieval of the weapon on exit....”  The City of Glendale, however, continued its pre-law policy of having an officer retrieve the firearm and taking possession of it during the officer’s shift. 

You then had to call the police department to have the officer return your firearm. If you didn’t call the officer back before the end of shift or the officer was busy, the gun would be logged into evidence at police headquarters, 12-20 miles away from branch libraries or the airport. You would then have to go to police headquarters, fill out the federal firearm purchase form, and have a background check to retrieve your gun. 

This was neither readily accessible nor immediately retrievable. 

If they insist on checking, we’ll make them work for it

To fight this, a group of citizens (including this author) coordinated a series of “take your gun to the library” days, where we would randomly show up to city buildings (such as a library or the city airport) and request an officer to check our firearm. Glendale followed its policy, as expected. We soon began checking firearms every weekend, with about 5-10 people participating. This went on for about 4-5 weekends, with the occasional weekday evening thrown in for good measure.

When we learned the city was assigning 4 officers to cover the weekend firearm checking, we stopped our activities. After a few weekends, city officials discovered they’d been paying unnecessary overtime and reassigned the officers to their normal duties. We then restarted checking activities, with even more people involved.

After several weekends, the city manager invited me and two of the other activists to meet. He, along with the police chief and someone from the mayor’s office, asked us what we wanted.

Sometimes you’ve got to just take the win

We told him we wanted the city to follow the law, and either 

  1. Allow us to carry peaceably, do our business, then leave, or 
  2. Install lockboxes because making citizens retrieve their firearms from police headquarters did not follow the law.

The city manager refused to consider allowing carry inside public buildings such as a library. We said we would accept lockboxes, but explained that every time a firearm was handled increased the chance of a negligent discharge. The city wouldn’t budge. Lockboxes were installed within the month.

To use the lockboxes, however, you had to go into the building in order to retrieve the key. We pointed out the irony, but the city remained steadfast against allowing free access without checking. To this day, to check your gun, you have to go into the building, armed, get the key, then put your firearm in the locker. When leaving, reverse the process. 

So, while we didn’t get what we wanted, we held elected officials accountable by making them follow the law. Sometimes you just gotta take the “W”.

How to beat city hall

We were happy with our victory. Some of the key elements to our success were the same tactics given in most books on negotiation:

  1. We had a clear idea of what we wanted versus what was acceptable
  2. We had a plan to accomplish it
  3. We developed “what if they do this?” contingencies
  4. We knew when to stop pushing

One of the outcomes of this type of activism is that, for better or worse, local officials will know who you are and the more successful you are, the more influence you can have for future issues.

Have a plan, pick your battles, and know what points you’re willing to concede, and which are non-negotiable. Doing this will get you much further than mindless, ‘angry’ activism.