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Ready for change: Locals prepare for new open carry gun law

Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Cheri Walden, Office Supply Manager at Smith Printing, displays two of the ‘no firearms’ signs that the company has printed in advance of Mississippi’s open carry laws coming in to effect.
Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Cheri Walden, Office Supply Manager at Smith Printing, displays two of the ‘no firearms’ signs that the company has printed in advance of Mississippi’s open carry laws coming in to effect.

NATCHEZ — A Mississippi law that would clarify the rights of citizens to openly carry firearms without the need of a permit was temporarily blocked Friday.

But local law enforcement officials and businesses are preparing to handle a potential influx of residents openly carrying guns throughout the city in anticipation that, despite the temporary court delay, the law will ultimately go into effect.

The law, which was supposed to take effect Monday, clarifies an existing state law to allow anyone the right to openly carry a firearm in public as long as it’s not concealed, hidden or obscured from view.

Under present law, with some exceptions, Mississippians have long been able to carry a weapon that is fully visible. And any citizen without a felony record can apply for a concealed-firearms permit.

Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — Natchez Police Lt. Craig Godbold shows the type of weapon that will be legal to have in public once the open carry law goes into effect to a group of officers at Natchez Police Department Thursday.
Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — Natchez Police Lt. Craig Godbold shows the type of weapon that will be legal to have in public once the open carry law goes into effect to a group of officers at Natchez Police Department Thursday.

The legal difference between carrying a concealed firearm and a partially concealed one is that the former requires a permit, and the latter does not. Those with concealed-firearms permits have to go through some screening and, in the case of so-called “enhance-carry” permits, certified training before getting the privilege.

Under the new law, a weapon 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 his pants or in their coat pocket as long as part of it wasn’t “hidden or obscured from common observation.”

Exceptions include weapons being prohibited on school campuses, in university stadiums and in courtrooms. Private property owners also can ban weapons from their premises by posting signs.

In some ways, the new law doesn’t differ much from what already existed in the state, House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, a Braxton Republican who sponsored the bill, said.

Gipson said he sponsored the bill to overturn the previous interpretation that anyone carrying a firearm 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.”

But what the new law may do is encourage more people to openly carry guns, since you can now strap one on and walk down Main Street, Natchez Police Department Lt. Craig Godbold, who is also the department’s firearms instructor, said.

“We are expecting a notable increase of people with firearms displaying them publically to start off while the law is new,” Godbold said. “And unless we have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop that person, we won’t and can’t.

“As long as you can see the weapon, it’s perfectly legal.”

Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Godbold, who is also the department’s firearms instructor, said he expects an increase of guns displayed in public initially.
Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Godbold, who is also the department’s firearms instructor, said he expects an increase of guns displayed in public initially.

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 people don’t have to answer.

“The mere fact that a person is openly carrying a weapon, without anything more, does not give the officer grounds to detain that person, or to require him to submit to questioning,” Deputy Attorney General Mike Lanford, writing for Attorney General Jim Hood, said in a legal opinion issued last week.

Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield said he’s more concerned with residents thinking the new law allows them to go into places such as courtrooms or schools, which still remain off limits.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the great influx of people wanting to wear them that people think it’s going to be,” Mayfield said. “My main concern is protecting the sensitive areas like the courthouse and that type of thing, and we’re working on some techniques now on how we’re going to approach that.”

Mayfield said signs were placed on all entrances of the courthouse, board of supervisor’s office and other locations last week.

“If they come in those areas with their guns that have signs posted, they can be arrested for trespassing,” Mayfield said. “So if people are going to be carrying their guns, they’re going to have to understand the law and know the places you can and can’t carry it openly.”

Private property and business owners can also prohibit guns by posting signs.

NPD Chief Danny White encouraged residents who don’t want people on their property openly carrying guns to post a sign.

“We’re all going to have to learn to deal with this because it’s a law, and it’s here to stay whether we like it or not,” White said. “We’re preparing to respond to more calls, but people and businesses need to have those signs displayed if they’re against it.”

Andrew’s Tavern owner Sammy Atkins said he and other business owners in Natchez have jointly agreed to post signs and not allow guns at their businesses.

“I’m 100 percent for guns, but I don’t feel like there’s anything good that can come from someone being able to walk into a bar or a business with a gun,” Atkins said. “It’s only going to take one or two accidents to ruin a business in Natchez real fast and that’s the last thing we need.”

Those efforts could backfire if people choose not to visit those locations that prevent guns inside, Natchez resident Jack Blaney said.

“My plan is to not go in businesses that don’t allow it and that’s just what I’m going to do,” Blaney said. “I understand that my patronage won’t have that big of an effect, but that’s the only way I can make a statement.

“I think people are overreacting because this will just help clarify the law that’s already in place.”

Some cities, such as McComb, have passed an ordinance to ban guns in city-owned buildings and on city property in anticipation of the law.

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said he has heard no discussions from city business owners or residents regarding the law and would likely not move to pass a similar ordinance without more input.

“I’d rather be a little more proactive with something like this, but at this point I haven’t heard anybody talking about it or observed anything,” Brown said. “At this point, I wouldn’t want to conjure up another ordinance we may not need.

“The downside is you never know what’s around the corner.”

Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd, who blocked the law Friday, scheduled a hearing July 8 to consider more arguments about whether to extend the injunction.