Who decides who can carry a gun into a courtroom? And what is a courtroom, exactly? Arkansas and Mississippi debating the issues.

As I’ve noted over the years, there’s been more and more of an effort to expand where people can carry firearms into courthouses, but the traditional (and in some states constitutional) boundary is the courtroom door. But what is a “courtroom”? And what about law enforcement?

What is a courtroom?
In Mississippi this issue came up most recently as the result of litigation. The state legislature had previously enacted a law to allow for courthouse carry for those with enhanced licenses, but specifically exempted courtrooms. Several Mississippi judges attempted to create by administrative order a gunfree zone that encompassed portions of their courthouse. In June of last year the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down that policy (Ward v. Winston Colom) but did uphold the courtroom ban.

The debate did not stop there, however. Enter HB 1581, which would specifically defined “courthouse” and “courtroom” for purposes of the carrying statute, and provide that a “courtroom” includes “judges’ chambers, witness rooms and jury rooms. ” However, explicitly excluded from “courtroom” is ” 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, 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.”

HB 1581 was approved by the House Judiciary B committee on February 5.

Does law enforcement have a “right” to carry into a courtroom?

The other question is whether a judge could prohibit law enforcement from coming into a courtroom armed. When the New Hampshire legislature tried to force this issue in the 1970s, that state’s high court ruled against a statute that required judges let law enforcement come in armed (State v. LaFrance, 124 N.H. 171, 471 A.2d 340, 1983 N.H. LEXIS 377 (1983). The provision in RSA 490:4-a (“Notwithstanding any other rule, regulation or order to the contrary, law enforcement officers shall be permitted to wear firearms in any courtroom in the state.”) struck as unconstitutional. Violates the separation of powers doctrine provided by part 1, article 37 of the Constitution of New Hampshire.)

Mississippi law already provides “A law enforcement officer, as defined in Section 45-6-3, shall be authorized to carry weapons in courthouses in performance of his official duties” but what about courtroom carry? HB 1019 would have specifically put into law that the existing statute did not apply where the officer was “instructed by the judge of that court in that judge’s courtroom” to leave the weapon. The bill went nowhere in the House.

Arkansas is debating a similar courtroom-carry-by-law-enforcement bill. Arkansas law already contains a provision that law enforcement “is permitted to possess a handgun in the courtroom.” SB 197 as originally filed would have allowed for both on-duty and off-duty certified law enforcement to courtroom carry.

This was amended, however, with a proviso: an off-duty officer may not courtroom carry if he or she is “a party to or a witness in a civil or criminal matter unless the law provides otherwise.”

SB 197 is set for a hearing in the Arkansas Senate City, County, and Local Affairs Committee tomorrow (2/12).