Today I'm going to address a common question or comment I hear from gun owners and students. It generally goes something like this:
If there is a no gun sign on the door of a business I will just go through a side door where they don't have the sign or I will just say I didn't see the sign. Then I can't be held liable.
Is it true? Do you avoid any potential criminal or civil liability if you don't see or don't notice the sign?
Before we proceed I want to clarify that the subject of this article is private property. Ignoring restrictions on government buildings, city, county, state, or federal, carries heavy and clear legal consequences. That is outside the scope of this discussion where we are focused on the potential liability of ignoring restrictions enforced by PRIVATE PROPERTY OWNERS.
One Aspect Of This is Going to Vary By State Law
One thing we have to determine first and foremost is if the state has laws that specify:
1: If no gun signs carry any force of law to begin with. (Learn more here)
2: If the state specifies requirements for how the business is required to communicate they restrict guns. In some states signs must have specific language, be placed at specific places, or be printed at a certain size. In some states any form of notice verbal, written, or otherwise must be sufficient to carry the force of law.
So what is my point? Well if there is no real criminal consequence to having a firearm in a business that posts a no-gun sign, then does it really matter if you claim to have not seen the sign or not?
WARNING: I find far too many gun owners who read a few statutes and inherently feel that they know if no gun signs do or don't carry the force of law. It isn't always that simple and even many attorneys and organizations that specifically study the issues end up without a good answer to this question for a given state. This is often due to the lack of precedents from past court cases that would allow us in hindsight to see how the laws have been applied in these situations.
The Reasonable Standard
When it comes to criminal prosecution or civil liability the reasonable standard is applied and is relevant in this circumstance. What I mean is that while ignorance of the law is no excuse, the gun owner needs to be put on notice in a way that effectively communicates to a reasonable person that firearms aren't welcome in that business or on that property.
To clarify further, is it reasonable for a gun owner to assume that every business prohibits guns? No, it is not. The vast majority of businesses and establishments do NOT prohibit the possession or carrying of a firearm so it is generally reasonable for a gun owner to assume that any business they enter does not prohibit a firearm. Thus there is a relatively high standard placed on the property owner who wants to prohibit guns.
They must go to some effort to communicate to any person entering the premise that they have a policy in place that prohibits guns. That effort must be considered reasonable, meaning that a normal person under normal circumstances (based on the judgment of the arresting officer, prosecutor, judge, or jury) would have clearly understood that firearms are not allowed on the premise.
So if the sign is only placed on one of 4 different entrances to the building or is so small nobody can read it, or is placed somewhere normal frequenters of the business do not go, or is too vague about what is being prohibited or communicated at all then the property owner likely hasn't gone to the reasonable effort required to be able to prohibit firearms.
Now, there are other reasonable ways a prohibition could be communicated other than a sign. Perhaps on your first day at your current job your employer handed you a printed out binder or book called an employee manual and asked you to read and review it and then had you sign a document stating you would, in fact, read it and would be held legally accountable to all the company policies listed in that manual.
I would say that is fairly reasonable although perhaps one could argue that nobody ever reads such thing and it would be more reasonable to assume that new employees don't read it.
Perhaps you have been verbally notified by a business. I would say that is fairly reasonable as well.
So Can I Pull the Ignorance Card?
Only time will tell. If and when you are charged with breaking a law, then the system will determine if your ignorance is a qualifying defense but there will really be two things you would have to prove:
First, that the property owner failed to reasonably put you on notice. That acting as a normal person in normal circumstances you were not adequately informed of the policy or that due to extraordinary circumstances you were not adequately informed.
Second, that due to the property owner's failure to put you on notice you were in fact fully unaware of any prohibition or policy that you might have been breaking.
Fail to prove either of those two points and I think your claim of ignorance is not helpful or valid.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!
*Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. I cannot provide legal advice. When you have questions about laws I encourage you to retain local competent advice from an attorney.