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Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Law Clarifying Carry Rules

Friday, January 17, 2014

On August 29, 2013, the Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously upheld a recently-enacted law that sought to restore the right to carry firearms openly within the state. Since an unfavorable decision in 1908, Mississippi’s ban on carrying a firearm that was concealed “in whole, or in part” was interpreted so strictly that one judge had opined that even the carrying a firearm by a leather string would violate the ban, as the string would obscure at least part of the firearm. Acccordingly, anyone lacking a Mississippi carry permit was unable to carry a pistol about his or her person without violating the law. Further, the law was interpreted so that any permit holder whose concealed firearm was partially revealed - while the person adjusted his or her clothes, for example – would run afoul of the law.

In February 2013, the Mississippi legislature approved HB 2 which clarified that “’concealed’ means hidden or obscured from common observation and shall not include any weapon listed in subsection (1) of this section, including, but not limited to, a loaded or unloaded pistol carried upon the person in a sheath, belt holster or shoulder holster that is wholly or partially visible, or carried upon the person in a scabbard or case for carrying the weapon that is wholly or partially visible.” On March 4, 2013, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed HB 2 into law, with the new rule set to take effect the following July 1st.

However, in late June, a group led by Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, and backed by the inaccurately-named Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a suit to block the new law.  On June 28, 2013, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd granted an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect. Kidd accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that the law was unconstitutionally vague and that a "reasonable person reading the bill could not discern what the law allows and what it prohibits." Despite the fact that the majority of states have for some time recognized as legal various forms of open carry, SPLC attorney Jody Owens argued, “The plaintiffs are trying to stop mayhem. We're looking at a wild, wild West scenario.” In a bizarre and novel legal strategy, the opponents of the new law also claimed that the state of Mississippi is obligated by the state constitution to restrict the open carry of firearms.

On July 22, 2013, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood filed a petition for interlocutory appeal and motion to vacate permanent injunction with the state Supreme Court, seeking to overturn Kidd’s ruling. Days later, separate friend of the court briefs were filed on behalf of Gov. Bryant, a coalition of 80 state senators, and NRA, supporting Hood’s petition. 

The NRA brief countered the “wild West” hyperbole advanced by Smith and the SPLC, explaining that the changes in the law are easily understood and that federal and Mississippi laws contain numerous other firearm regulations aimed at preserving the public peace, which laws would continue to be enforceable under HB 2. The brief cited, for example, federal and state laws which bar felons from possessing firearms and establish various sensitive places where firearms may not be carried. Further, the brief explains that while the state is precluded from some onerous firearms regulations under the U.S. and Mississippi constitutions, the state is certainly not required to regulate open carry “in a specific manner to the liking” of Smith and SPLC.

Thankfully, the nine Mississippi Supreme Court justices agreed with the Attorney General’s Office and the NRA, determining that the arguments accepted by the lower court were without merit and overturning its injunction.  Their terse, no-nonsense order stated: “This Court finds that the Circuit Judge erred as a matter of law when he found House Bill 2 to be vague and, therefore, unconstitutional. He also erred when he stated that ‘a reasonable person reading the bill could not discern what the law allows and what it prohibits.’” 

Since the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling, open carry has been the law of the land in the Magnolia State.  Needless to say, life has continued as normal for Mississippians, and the Wild West scenario breathlessly advanced by the SPLC and the other plaintiffs has not come to pass.

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