Meridian Star

April 8, 2013

Open carry law worries law enforcement officials

By Brian Livingston / blivingston@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Just to be clear, there aren't many law enforcement officers or officials who are against the second amendment.

    Most of them, after all, own guns and shoot them regularly away from their professional careers whether it be for sport or for hunting. But bring up the new open carry law Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law March 4, and that will go into effect July 1 of this year, law enforcement officers get a little nervous.     

    "I would never prohibit a law abiding citizen their right to have a gun but I'd be lying if I said I'm not concerned about this," said James Sharpe, acting chief for the Meridian Police Department. "We are talking with the State Attorney General's Office to get some clarification on some things we as police officers might be faced with during the course of our duties."

    House Bill 2, as it was originally written, was to address a loophole in the state's concealed weapons carry law that could cause a person to inadvertently violate the law if the weapon was visible. The law was originally intended to allow a weapon to be visible for a short period of time if, for example, the wind blew their jacket open and a gun was seen.

    Instead, House Bill 2 now allows a person to carry a gun in plain view without a permit. If they carry the weapon concealed, however, they will still need a concealed weapons permit.     

    In a letter to law enforcement agencies received recently by Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie, State District 77 Rep. Andy Gipson stated the open carry law that is part of House Bill 2 now only solidifies what the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 put forth in that, "The right of every citizen to keep and bear arms in defense of his home person, or property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall not be called into question, but the Legislature may regulate or forbid carrying concealed weapons."

    Sollie and Sharpe share many of the same concerns about the new law. Paramount to Sollie is that people who carry guns out in the open may be targeted by thieves who attempt to take the weapons away from them.  

    "Law enforcement officers are trained, and our holsters are specifically designed to stop such a thing from happening," said Sollie. "But a civilian does not have that sort of training."

    But even law enforcement officers can have their weapons taken from them resulting in isolated cases in the death of the officer.

    Thursday evening Jackson Police Department Detective Eric Smith was shot and killed with his service weapon when a murder suspect was able to get Smith's gun. The way in which 23-year-old Jeremy Powell was able to get the firearm is still under investigation. But when Sollie was an officer for the MPD in 1985, Alma Walters died when her gun was wrestled away from her.

    Walters, 29, was shot and killed on Dec. 28, 1985, during a domestic disturbance call. She was attacked by an intoxicated man who knocked her to the ground. He then grabbed her gun and pulled her into the house. As other responding officers arrived at the scene Walters warned them by yelling out that the suspect had her gun. The man then shot in her in the neck, killing her.

    "I remember that night well," Sollie said. "But we don't know how Smith's gun was taken from him. Did the suspect knock him out and then figure out how to get the gun out of the holster? We don't know. But if an officer, who is trained to maintain control of his gun sometimes loses it, then I don't think a civilian not trained at all or using a holster that isn't made to prohibit someone from taking the gun, could fare any better."

    For Sharpe, the added stress on just the normal patrol officer as he approaches a vehicle or several people who are openly carrying a firearm has just been ramped up considerably.

    "We will have to adjust from the training we've received," said Sharpe. "We are trained to find the most threatening individual and to lock onto them. But when there are two, three or four people standing around and all of them are openly carrying firearms, how are we supposed to protect ourselves?"

    Sharpe does believe in the long run that the open carry law will decrease crime against individuals. He said a criminal would have to be really desperate to target someone who is openly carrying a firearm.

    The overall advice from law enforcement officials and from Gipson himself in the open letter to agencies is that anyone considering carrying a firearm to go one step further and obtain the concealed carry permit.

    "If you carry a gun openly and winter rolls around again, what are you going to do if you wear a coat or jacket," Sharpe asked. "If you cover up your weapon then it is concealed. Then you have to be permitted. So go ahead and get the concealed carry permit to take away this headache."

    Sollie likes the idea of everyone who wants to carry a firearm to keep it concealed. He said the surprise aspect of an armed citizen is much better than being the first target of a crazed criminal.

    "If I'm a criminal and I'm determined or crazy enough, the first person I'm going to shoot is the one with the gun," Sollie said.

    Sollie and Sharpe both said anyone getting a firearm should go through firearm safety courses that are credible. Both law enforcement leaders said even if you have grown up with guns, there can never be too much practice or education.