Gun ruling includes history lesson
A Mississippi Supreme Court decision about guns in courthouses provided different perspectives from several justices, including a history lesson about gun rights from Justice Leslie B. King, the only African-American currently serving on the nine-member court.
The majority of justices ruled Thursday that some chancery judges were wrong to ban people with enhanced concealed-carry licenses from taking guns into courthouses. The ruling said judges in the 14th Chancery District overstepped their authority because the Mississippi Constitution specifies that only the Legislature “may regulate or forbid carrying concealed weapons.”
The Legislature enacted a law in July 2011 saying that people with enhanced concealed-carry licenses may take guns into courthouses, although not into courtrooms. Judges in the 14th Chancery District issued an order in November 2011 banning anyone other than law enforcement officers from having concealed guns in and around all parts of courthouses in the district in Chickasaw, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, Oktibbeha and Webster counties.
A resident with an enhanced concealed-carry license challenged the chancery judges’ ban, and the matter made its way to the state Supreme Court.
In a dissenting opinion Thursday, King provided a different perspective about which branch of government had intruded on the powers of another branch. King wrote that the Mississippi Constitution specifies the judicial branch is in charge of the administration of justice, and he said the Legislature had encroached on judges’ responsibility to regulate what is allowed in courthouses.
King, a former state legislator from Greenville, also wrote about the constitutional right to bear arms, saying that the original intent of a concealed-carry provision in Section 12 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 “was to allow the Legislature to restrict and prohibit concealed carry, not to expand it.”
King pointed out that Mississippi has a long record of restricting black people from owning or carrying guns.
“While a review of Mississippi law does not reveal any general restrictions or prohibitions on concealed carry of weapons prior to the late 1800s, African-Americans, both slave and free, were restricted from carrying or owning weapons,” King wrote. “Slaves were generally banned from carrying weapons, absent permission from a justice of the peace on application of his master, and then the slave was only allowed to carry and use a weapon within the limits of his master’s land.”
He also wrote: “After the Civil War ended, Mississippi passed ‘Black Codes’ in 1865, which continued the prohibition against black people owning a gun without a special license.”
During the early years of Reconstruction, communities of free black people “were often well-armed, and able to defend their rights…. White Southern entities consequently began to systematically disarm African-Americans,” King wrote.
Historians broadly acknowledge that the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 — which the state still uses in amended form — was written to restrict African-Americans from participating in the political process and from enjoying full rights as citizens. Some of the provisions that have since been struck down included segregated schools, poll taxes and a ban on interracial marriage.
“Section 12 of the 1890 Constitution changed the right to bear arms back from ‘all persons’ to ‘citizens,’ and allowed the Legislature to regulate or forbid carrying concealed weapons. This alteration was one of several ‘craftily designed to obstruct or deny certain rights to African-Americans,’” King wrote, citing historian Westley F. Busbee Jr. “Such measures regulating or prohibiting concealed carry could be selectively enforced.”
During debates in recent years, members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus have mentioned selective enforcement, raising concerns that African-Americans who are legally carrying guns could be questioned or treated more harshly than white people.
Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jeffamy.