Meridian Star

August 2, 2013

LEMA director wants more than a stick to fight snakes

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     In hopes of making search and rescues in forests and wetlands in Lauderdale County more safe for the searchers, county officials are being asked to make an exception for search and rescue workers to carry guns in their vehicles.

    At issue is whether a new county weapons ban could be tweaked so that rescuers could protect themselves from poisonous snakes such as copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes.

    Search and rescue workers would like to be able to protect themselves from snakes, but a new weapons ban for all county buildings and vehicles prohibits them from carrying them in county-owned vehicles.

    In a work session of the county board of supervisors on Thursday, David Sharp, director of Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency, asked the board for an exception. He provided the board with copies of certificates showing that he, Scott Stokes, and Scott Spears have all successfully completed a Basics Firearms Course and Firearms Qualification.

    The county's weapons ban came following the passage of a state open-carry law that is currently being challenged in court.

    Sharp asked supervisors if he and two members of his staff who assist searches could be allowed to carry weapons to protect themselves from snakes in the woods.

    "We're not asking to be law enforcement officers, we just want to protect ourselves when we are out there," Sharp said. "We're asking for some clarification and hopefully approval."

    Sharp said he doesn't want to carry a weapon in any buildings, but he wants to be able to have it in his vehicle in case he is called out to a search in an area where there are likely to be snakes.

    District Two Supervisor Wayman Newell took issue with the request.

    "How many more agencies of the county government are going to request this and go to school (weapons training) if the board approves yours?" Newell asked. "How many times have you ever needed a gun, David?"

    "Not often, but it only takes one time," Sharp replied.

    Newell was not convinced.

    "Have you ever had to fire a shot at a rattlesnake or an animal when you are out there," Newell asked.

    "Yes sir," Sharp said. "We were on a search operation and I had a cottonmouth about three feet from me."

    "There wasn't a stick around?" Newell asked.

    Newell said he doesn't understand why any county employee, other than a law enforcement officer, would need a weapon.

    "That's me. I may be completely wrong. I don't even carry a knife, much less a gun," Newell said. "You shoot at something on the water, the bullet glances off and hits somebody over there that hasn't even been in the picture at that time. I just can't support it myself. I can't do it."

    Board president Hank Florey asked Rick Barry, board attorney, to give his opinion on the issue.

    In the case of an incident, Barry said there are different standards to prove either reckless disregard or negligence on the part of a county employee. The standard is different for law enforcement and fire department personnel than it is for other county employees.

    "A regular county employee would just be guilty of negligence," Barry said.

    Law enforcement or fire personnel would be held to the standard of reckless disregard, Barry said.

    However, Barry said because Sharp and the others had taken firearms training, he could recommend allowing them to have weapons for use in searches.

    "I see a big rattlesnake," Barry said, "I'm not going to grab a stick."

    District Three Supervisor Josh Todd said he had accompanied them on searches and he agrees that they should have some protection.

    "If we were around Chunky River at this time, looking for that man," said Todd, referring to a previous search, "I don't know how many of y'all have floated the Chunky River, I've seen snakes drop out of trees this big around. There's not a stick long enough for me to sit there and try to hold him down while I move."

    Todd suggested that they keep trigger locks on the guns.

    "Knowing you and knowing your men, I think you all are more than responsible enough to carry them," Todd said.

    When the matter comes up for a vote, Newell said he can't support it.

    "I don't see the need for county employees to have a gun," Newell said.     He noted that volunteer searchers are probably already armed and suggested that Sharp or his staff ask them to shoot a snake.

    District Four Supervisor Joe Norwood  asked Sharp how long he had been using a gun.

    "Since I was about 12 years old," Sharp said.

    Norwood said he supports Sharp's request.

    "I know I would not personally want to be in the woods as LEMA director in charge of a search and rescue and everybody have a gun but me," Norwood said. "I'm not going out there — I'm just letting you know that right now."

    Sharp asked that the request be included on Monday's agenda for the Board of Supervisors meeting. The meeting will start at 9 a.m. in the downstairs board room at the Raymond Davis Annex Building.