Gun control: Resolution on historic Sullivan courthouse held over for July

J. H. Osborne • Jun 20, 2013 at 11:59 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Commissioner John Gardner did not seek a vote from the full commission earlier this week on his resolution seeking to give control of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse to the commission.

The issue could ultimately mean removal of signs on the building’s doors telling all who enter that weapons are not allowed in the courthouse.

Those signs, citing state law, went up last year at the direction of Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson.

Gardner — who has said authority over building maintenance is the reason he’s raised the issue — had told the Times-News last week that he would like to see a vote this month, something that would have required him to ask for a waiver of the commission’s rules.

But Gardner instead left the resolution on “first reading,” meaning it will be listed as “old business” on the commission’s July agenda.

That lowers the threshold for how many “yes” votes are needed for passage — from a two-thirds majority (16 of 24 commissioners) if voted on under a waiver of the rules, to a simple majority (13) if voted on during a subsequent meeting.

Gardner’s resolution 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.”

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 dayworker program — which provides the labor to clean the historic courthouse and other county offices — from 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 — 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 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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