Should guns be allowed in the courthouse?

Clint Cole - Editor

The Issue: The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that carrying firearms is illegal in court-controlled space, which includes hallways, bathrooms and other areas of the courthouse, in addition to the court rooms. 

Local Impact: One Supervisor argues that the supreme court has overstepped its jurisdiction since, as a result, residents cannot carry guns anywhere in the courthouse, even if it would be otherwise legal to. 

At their regular weekly meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 8 in Adel, the Dallas County Board of Supervisors discussed whether or not the Iowa Supreme Court has overstepped its jurisdiction by not allowing anyone besides police officers to carry firearms in County Courthouses.

The current state code allows for the legal carriage of firearems in government buildings and offices and Iowa Code, Chapter 724.28 states that a “political subdivision of the state shall not enact an ordinance regulating the ownership, possession, legal transfer, lawful transportation, registration, or licensing of firearms when the ownership, possession, transfer, or transportation is otherwise lawful under the laws of this state.”

“I think it's pretty clear, what they're trying to say is the county's not going to impose any policies, any rules, any ordinances that's contrary to the state law, is what they're trying to say,” said Kim Chapman, chair of the Board of Supervisors.

District Judge Randy V. Hefner, who was present at the meeting said that, in his opinion, when the current weapons law passed, home rule for cities and counties was not changed and that they could still pass their own regulations regarding possession of firearms within their own buildings.

“If you attempted to broaden a weapons prohibition or limitation on the right to carry firearms to the general public; the streets, you know, just out in the general public areas of the city, then you could run a foul of this section,” Hefner said.

An Iowa Supreme Court supervisory order said that carrying firearms in any court-controlled buildings or spaces is not allowed by anyone except for law enforcement officials. The order orders that “all weapons are prohibited from courtrooms, court-controlled spaces, and public areas of courthouses and other justice centers occupied by the court system.”

Since the order includes “public areas” of courthouses, including hallways, bathrooms, stairways and elevators, the firearm restriction applies to the entire Dallas County Courthouse, even though it is not technically illegal to possess a firearm in other offices that are not controlled by the courts.

When asked how the Iowa Supreme Court can make an order that conflicts with the state code, Hefner said that the Judicial Branch of Iowa is not a political subdivision.

“It doesn't make any difference what that code says, or at least this particular section,” Hefner says.

Chapman made it clear that he does not have an issue with the Iowa Supreme Court making that ruling on court spaces within the courthouse, but said that the issue for him comes down to the definition of “public spaces” and sees the order as a conflict with the Iowa code, saying that he believes the Iowa Supreme Court overstepped its jurisdiction by extending it to hallways, bathrooms, stairways and anything else within

Dallas County Attorney Wayne Reisetter said that if Dallas County sought an injunction against the Supreme Court regarding the supervisory order, the Supreme Court would hear the injunction.

“There are times when the Legislature, or other people think that the courts have made an improper interpretation, but it still goes through that court process,” Reisetter said. He said that the District Courts would hear any appeal of their decision in such a case.

Under Chapter 724.28 of the Iowa Code, any law passed by a city, county or township government after April 5, 1990 would be void and those effected by such a law could file a suit against that government for damages.

Currently, the only official weapons ban that Dallas County has in place only applies to employees. Chapman asked about the County's exposure to liability and to lawsuits because of their policy pertaining to employees and to following the court order.

Reisetter suggested that they could lessen some of their liability by eliminating their policy of restricting county employees from carrying guns in the county buildings, but still upholding the court order in the courthouse.

“The Sheriff has to support the courts, then if the order is to provide courthouse security to the building, because of design and how it's used, then that's not county policy,” Reisetter said. “That is the court order… in the end, you would effectively protect yourself from being sued because you don't have a county policy. Whatever's going on the courthouse regarding security is purely because of the supervisory order that the Sheriff must abide.”

Chapman posed a hypothetical situation where someone got through security and entered the courthouse with a weapon and used it against someone who was unable to defend themselves because they did not have a weapon. He asked what the county's liability would be for not allowing the victim to carry his weapon into the courthouse and be able to defend himself during the incident.

Hefner said that he would not be concerned about the liability on that theory.

“I've spent 30 years practicing law and I've handled a lot of plaintiff's cases,” Hefner said. “The best argument there isn't that the person was not allowed to carry his weapon into the courthouse, the best argument is that the county was negligent in allowing the shooter in.”

Reisetter said that if they feel that the court order is unlawful, they cannot simply ignore the court order, but instead would have to file a suit against the Judicial Branch. He said they protect themselves from liability from not allowing weapons into the courthouse by following the court order.

Chapman suggested that they file a suit against the Iowa Supreme Court on the grounds that they don't have any jurisdiction over the the hallways outside of the court spaces in the courthouse. Golightly and Supervisor Mark Hanson, however, do believe that the public spaces in the courthouse are under the jurisdiction of the Iowa Supreme Court and should be considered controlled by the courts.

The Supervisors decided that they will have more discussion and a possible action in two weeks regarding possible changes to the security agreement, prohibiting employees from possessing weapons in county buildings.