Judges, legislators contest courthouse carry

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

For nearly two years now, Mississippi firearms permit holders who take approved training can legally carry concealed weapons in several places previously off limits, including college campuses, houses of worship and city halls.
Under 2011’s House Bill 506, permittees with the extra endorsement also don’t have to disarm when they go into a courthouse to buy a car tag, look up land records or attend a meeting but must disarm before they go into an active courtroom.
Bro. Michael Wilkins, pastor of Oakland Baptist Church in Walnut and the owner of North Mississippi Firearms Instruction, acknowledges the concept of civilians carrying firearms – especially in what are considered “sensitive places” – makes some people nervous but says it’s comparable to having fire extinguishers.
“You might need a firearm in a courthouse or a church for the same reason you might need one in Walmart – to defend your life or the life of someone else,” he said.
Judges in several counties of Northeast Mississippi as well as other parts of the state, however, issued orders countering that provision.
The law changed after some legislators pushed the expansion of civilian concealed carry as an amendment on a bill authorizing assistant prosecutors to carry concealed weapons.
“The Republican minority at the time had a fairly broad concealed carry law in mind,” said Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, an attorney and one of the authors of the enhanced-endorsement amendment. Rep. Willie Bailey D-Greenville, then chairman of Judiciary B committee, opposed their measure, Snowden said, but agreed to support it with an added training requirement – a first for any Mississippi firearms permit.
The law states that people who take the prescribed training can carry a concealed handgun in “courthouses except in courtrooms during a judicial proceeding,” the law now states, along with other formerly prohibited locations.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson asked the state Attorney General’s Office for a formal opinion. In its response, the AG’s office indicated the law would not allow a county entity to restrict a qualified permittee from carrying a concealed weapon into a courthouse other than courtrooms and non-public areas such as personal offices and areas behind counters.
Judges in the 1st Circuit District (Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties) and 1st Chancery District (those counties plus Union County) signed a joint order declaring that lobbies and hallways, in addition to chambers and witness rooms, “shall be and hereby are designated as entrances into and/or part of the courtrooms and, therefore, are deemed a part of each courtroom.”
Judges in the 14th Chancery District (Chickasaw, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, Oktibbeha and Webster counties) signed a similar order for all the courthouses in which they operate, and judges in scattered parts of the state have done the same thing.
Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green even extended her no-weapons order beyond the courthouse to include all grounds and nearby public office buildings.
To Snowden, such orders violate the separation of judicial and legislative powers.
“It’s our job to make the law – not the judges’ job,” he said. “There’s not a lot of leeway in this law.”
Recent visits to courthouses in 16 counties of Northeast Mississippi showed a broad range of security measures. Some have no metal detectors, although extra sheriff’s deputies are present during court proceedings. Others have metal detectors at courtroom doors – or, in some cases, in areas leading to courtrooms.
At courthouses in Lee and Clay counties, one is subject to search merely to enter the building, whether court is in session or not, and even people with the enhanced firearms permit are turned away if they are armed.
Such procedures, Snowden said, are “contrary to the law.”
Rick Ward, a firearms trainer from Collins, adds that the judges’ argument that the whole buildings need the same level of security doesn’t hold up.
“You don’t see where there’s a fight in the car tag office or the land deed office or the marriage license office. There’s only a propensity for violence in the courtroom,” he said, noting the Legislature.
Ward said the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance took no action on a complaint against Green and several Northeast Mississippi judges after they issued their orders.
Snowden and some other attorneys have said an armed civilian wrongly denied access to a courthouse may reverse the judicial restrictions by filing a writ of mandamus.
Ward said it’s wrong for such action to be necessary.
“We don’t need judges exercising authority that they don’t have,” he said. “Now we have to pay a lawyer to file papers to reacquire our rights.”

errol.castens@journalinc.com