Resolution would put Sullivan commission in control of historic courthouse — and its gun-carry rules

J. H. Osborne • Jun 16, 2013 at 5:11 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Going armed might be allowed again soon in the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

Some county commissioners are pushing to seize authority of the building, and that would give the Sullivan County Commission the decision-making power over the gun-carry issue, Commissioner John Gardner said last week.

Gardner is primary sponsor of a resolution asking the county commission to declare itself the authoritative body in control of the historic courthouse.

Gardner’s resolution — first made public at a meeting of the commission’s Executive Committee last Wednesday — does not mention the gun issue. But the Times-News asked Gardner if he had the issue in mind when he drafted the proposal.

“This resolution does not make (the historic courthouse, where the county commission meets) a weapons-free zone and it does not make it a weapons-permitted zone,” Gardner said. “But if the resolution is approved, that decision will fall on the county commission.”

Speaking to the Executive Committee, Gardner presented the resolution as something that needs to be done to ensure the commission has authority over who cleans and maintains the building.

In support of the resolution, Gardner also said the historic courthouse isn’t really a courthouse anymore because no judicial proceedings are held in the building.

The commission voted last month to remove the county’s day worker program — which provides the labor to clean the historic courthouse and other county offices — from County Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s purview and place it under county building maintenance.

Gardner said now that county building maintenance is in charge of cleaning the building, the resolution will make clear the county commission has control over “comings and goings” at the historic courthouse — which includes several constitutional offices where citizens come to conduct business, such as register of deeds, county trustee, and property assessor, as well as the county’s accounting department, payroll office, and purchasing department.

The building also houses the county attorney’s office, planning and zoning offices, and the office of County Mayor Steve Godsey.

Godsey has in the past made it no secret that he has a state permit to carry a handgun and that he often carried his gun in the courthouse.

Currently, unless you’re a certified officer of the law, you are prohibited from bringing a gun into the historic courthouse — no matter who you are, or whether or not you have a state permit to carry a gun — Sheriff Wayne Anderson said last year.

In July 2012, at Anderson’s direction, signs were posted on entry doors to the courthouse calling attention to the prohibition.

“It applies to everyone, and we will enforce it,” Anderson said.

That news apparently didn’t get a warm first reception at the courthouse. Anderson first had the signs — identical to signs long posted at other county court or law-related buildings — posted on at the historic courthouse on July 16. The full county commission met that day. The signs all disappeared almost as soon as they were put up, Anderson said.

“We don’t think that will happen again,” Anderson said in early August after the signs went up a second time. “If it does, it is a misdemeanor vandalism charge against anyone caught doing it.”

Anderson said he is a longtime supporter of gun rights and of the state’s gun permitting process.

“But there are places where carrying your gun is not appropriate,” Anderson said. “And the county courthouse is one of them. It isn’t just inappropriate, it is prohibited by state law. The bottom line is public safety.”

Earlier this year the county’s courthouse security committee completed a long-awaited process of installing “panic buttons” in various locations throughout county government offices, including inside the historic courthouse.

“Now they can hit a button and get help,” Anderson said. “Nobody needs to be carrying weapons to ‘protect’ other employees.”

In fact, Anderson said, Sullivan County’s employee handbook states employees are prohibited from bringing weapons on county property and can be terminated if they do so.

How do you answer those who say the more “good guys” with guns, the better for protecting bystanders if a “bad guy” pulls a gun at a public gathering?

“It causes confusion,” Anderson said. “In a place like that, if you’ve got people carrying weapons, and all of sudden all these guns come out and they’re pointed in every direction ... nobody is supposed to have a gun, and they all of sudden (officers) see four or five guns. And there could be crossfire. If an officer is in there, we might not draw and fire on that person because of all the other people in the room, we would try to get their attention on us and get them away from the public. That’d be a bad place to start trying to fire, some innocent person is going to get hurt.”

To enter some other court and law-related facilities throughout the county — in Kingsport, Bristol and Blountville — visitors already have to pass through metal detectors.

Ideally, Anderson said, that procedure will someday come to the historic courthouse as well. In the interim, Anderson said for meetings expected to include potentially controversial topics, it’s feasible that his staff — if requested — could use wands to check those going in.

Anderson said he will go on what county commissioners and other elected officials want on that.

“We’ve already been talking about increasing our security measures over there,” Anderson said last year. “You want it to be a place where the public can come in and express their grievance if they have one, that’s their right. But everybody wants a safe place to be.”

Gardner said he did not know if calling attention to the building not being a courthouse would have any negative implications for using courtroom security funding to install or maintain any security measures in the historic courthouse or its offices.

Efforts such as the metal detectors at other court-related buildings have been funded with a fee that state law allows to be collected and spent for court security.

Gardner said even though his resolution just saw the light of day last week, he would like for the full county commission to vote on the matter on Monday.

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