6/19/2013 6:00:00 AM Hood: Sheriffs can ban open guns in county courthouses
By JEFF AMY
Mississippi sheriffs can ban people from openly carrying guns into courthouses, state Attorney General Jim Hood said in a legal opinion Thursday.
Hood issued the document in anticipation of a law that starts July 1. The opinion clarifies that people may openly carry guns in Mississippi without a concealed weapon permit. Some people had previously interpreted state law to say people couldn't carry a visible gun on the streets without a permit.
Attorney general's opinions aren't legally binding, although they provide legal protection to officials who follow them.
Deputy Attorney General Mike Lanford, writing for Hood, said courthouses are "the scene of emotionally charged disputes such as child custody battles, criminal prosecutions, property forfeitures, tax sales, etc." He wrote that a ban on openly-carried guns "is reasonably tailored to serve the governmental interest in preserving security for courthouse proceedings and personnel."
The opinion reaffirms that private property owners can prohibit guns and says guns remain illegal on school and college campuses. It also says that police officers can approach people carrying guns in public and ask them questions, such as if they are a convicted felon banned from carrying guns, but said that people don't have to answer.
Rick Ward of Brandon, a concealed weapon permit instructor, was among the advocates of the bill. He attended a Wednesday meeting of law enforcement officers to discuss the law, and said he believes many police chiefs and sheriffs are hostile to it.
"We are now an open-carry state," Ward said. "They are just going to have to deal with it."
A gun would be considered openly carried if any part of it is plainly visible, or if someone was carrying it in sheath or holster. For example, someone without a concealed weapon permit could carry a gun in the waistband of their pants or in their coat pocket as long as part of it wasn't "hidden or obscured from common observation."
House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, a Braxton Republican who sponsored the bill, says he agrees with Democrat Hood's interpretation.
"In general, I think it's an OK opinion, Gipson said. "I do think there are still some unanswered questions on restrictions on cities and counties."
Gipson said he sponsored the bill to overturn the previous interpretation that anyone carrying a gun in public outside their property needed a concealed weapon permit. He said the state Constitution allows such open carrying.
"This is America," Gipson said. "This is who we are as a people. There's nothing more important in our society than our constitutional rights."
Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing said he plans to consult with judges and county supervisors about how authorities will handle guns at the Brookhaven courthouse. Right now, judges have an order banning anyone but law enforcement officers from carrying guns into courtrooms, Rushing said. But he said some offices in the courthouse are accessible without going through a metal detector.
Hood's opinion says it doesn't apply to people who carry a concealed weapon with a standard or enhanced permit.
Guns in courthouses have been a flashpoint in the interpretation of a prior law that allowed people with an enhanced concealed weapon permit to carry guns into places where they are otherwise forbidden, including some government offices. The law allows judges to still ban concealed weapons from their courtrooms, and judges in some areas have signed orders banning people with enhanced permits from carrying guns anywhere in courthouses.
Though Ward says sheriffs have the power to ban guns from courthouses if they are carried by people without enhanced permits, he says such outright bans are illegal.