Pending legislation co-authored by District 37 Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, takes aim at court orders by several judges that have restricted firearm access to courtrooms.
House Bill 571 is an amendment to Mississippi Code section 45-9-101 and looks to clarify the definition of “courthouse” and “courtroom” as a direct response to efforts by some courts to prevent civilians with concealed or enhanced carry permits from carrying firearms onto the premises.
The Lowndes County Chancery Court provided two orders, from 2011 and 2013, respectively, that chancellors Dorothy Colom, Kenneth Burns and Jim Davidson issued to forbid firearms from courthouses in the 14th Chancery District, which includes, Chickasaw; Clay; Lowndes; Noxubee; Oktibbeha and Webster.
They issued the first in response to House Bill 506, which allowed anyone “who has properly completed an instructional course in the safe handling and use of firearms offered by an instructor certified by a nationally-recognized organization that customarily offers firearm training, or by any other organization approved by the Department of Public Safety,” to carry a concealed firearm into courthouses.
A June 2013 version of the order responds to House Bill 2, which was passed earlier that year. The bill included exemptions for certain weapons, including pistols that are wholly or partially visible.
The law does not allow concealed firearms into courtrooms, except for judges or anyone exempt by a judge, such as law enforcement officers.
In the 2013 order, the judges extended the courtroom to align with the exterior of the courthouse in banning firearms from the premises.
“To allow a person legally to carry a concealed or visible or partially visible weapon to the courtroom door poses a threat that cannot be deterred before great bodily harm or death could be inflicted inside the courtroom,” the order states. “The safety of litigants, their families, Court and Courthouse personnel and judges is paramount and a decision as to whether a person is law abiding or has intent to harm cannot be made before great harm can be inflicted.”
Davidson said his concern isn’t about criminals carrying guns into the courthouse, because they’re already handcuffed and guarded. He said his main concern is the emotional nature of some cases could lead to trouble if firearms are present.
“Otherwise rational people who are out in the hall on different sides of the issues, in competing families — at some point in time, tempers are going to flare and road rage is going to set in,” he said. “Otherwise rational people are going to act irrationally.”
Chism said HB 571 seeks to prevent judges from issuing orders like the ones in the 14th Chancery District.
“This bill is to correct that and say that all (judges) have jurisdiction over is the courtroom,” he said. “Our bill was clear that you can carry anywhere in the courthouse except a courtroom. This is to clarify that.
“Other courts — circuit courts and chancery courts — have tried to limit this,” he said. “We didn’t mean for it to be limited. We intend for it to go back like it was, like we intended — only the courtroom itself.”
At the Oktibbeha County Courthouse, Chancery Clerk Monica Banks said the issue hasn’t presented any problems.
“It’s not really been an issue for us,” she said. “We’ve tried to discourage them. Right now, we’re quiet and most people that come are nice enough to do what the bailiffs ask them to do.”
The order has met some opposition at least once in Lowndes County. In November, Jackson-area firearms instructor and gun activist Rick Ward challenged the board’s decision to enforce the court order and asked them to rescind it.
Ward, like Chism, said judges only have authority over the courtroom and as such, cannot ban firearms from the courthouse grounds.
On Friday, Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders told The Dispatch he still supports the chancellors’ decision to keep firearms out while court is in session.
Sanders echoed Davidson’s thoughts, saying the high-emotion situations in court could lead to emotional escalations.
“My personal opinion is that when court is in session, the whole courthouse should be off limits to firearms except for law enforcement or people like that,” Sanders said. “You can’t bring a machete into the courthouse at any time. A pistol or a machine gun or shotgun is a heck of a lot more dangerous to the public than a machete.”
While he said he supports the Second Amendment “100 percent,” he believes sometimes there is cause for exception.
“In some cases, I think it’s prudent that the overall protection of the general population is more important,” Sanders said.
Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Glenn Hamilton said his courthouse — which is located in the Oktibbeha County Courthouse Annex and separate from the county’s chancery court — doesn’t fall under the 14th Chancery District court order.
Still, he said he prefers that firearms are left out of the courthouse. He said circuit judges forbid firearms within the courtrooms.
“We discourage it in as diplomatic a way as we possibly can,” Hamilton said. “We have security measures and we would just hate to see a gunfight break out in the courthouse. There are too many innocent people here. But the law is the law, and we can’t enforce against our current law.”
HB 571 clarifies the definitions of “courthouse” and “courtroom.” The proposed definitions are as follows:
Courthouse — any building in which a circuit court, chancery court, youth court, municipal court or justice court is located, or any building in which a court of law is regularly held. “Courthouse” shall not mean the grassed areas, cultivated flower beds, sidewalks, parking lots or other areas contained within the boundaries of the public land upon which the courthouse is located.
Courtroom — the actual room in which a judicial proceeding occurs, including any jury room, witness room, judge’s chamber, office housing the judge’s staff or similar room. “Courtroom” shall not mean hallways, courtroom entrances, courthouse grounds, lobbies, corridors or other areas within a courthouse which are generally open to the public for the transaction of business outside of an active judicial proceeding.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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