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Nye County’s stance on guns in courthouses raises safety concerns

Judges are expressing concerns about safety after Nye County commissioners voted last month to allow weapons in most areas of the region’s courthouses.

The entrance to the Ian Deutch Government Complex, which houses the Gerald ‘Bear’ Smith Courthouse in Pahrump, has no metal detectors. And no deputies check people for weapons as they walk in to attend what are often contentious child custody, divorce, criminal or civil proceedings.

“Every year or so we go to the commissioners and ask them to provide security in the courthouse,” District Judge Robert Lane said. “They haven’t done so so far. I believe their primary concern is the cost of the employees manning the front door and so forth.”

In response, Lane issued an order nearly 12 years ago prohibiting weapons anywhere that judicial work was being done in Nye County. Lane said the order at least allowed for a sign on the front door of the Deutch complex informing the public that weapons were not allowed, which remains, and it meant courthouse bailiffs could challenge people they observed carrying weapons into the building, courthouse hallways or courtrooms.

But on Dec. 16, the Nye County Commission unanimously passed a measure aimed at rolling back almost all of Lane’s order. Commissioner Bruce Jabbour spearheaded the move, saying legal gun owners should be able to carry weapons almost everywhere in county buildings so they can defend themselves if needed.

Exceptions, he said, will be inside courtrooms and offices housing judicial staffers.

“This is about Second Amendment rights,” Jabbour said during the meeting, “the rights that we have as citizens here in Nye County.”

‘Every day you worry’

At the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas, public entryways are staffed by officers operating metal detectors. This scene is common at courthouse entrances across the United States. District Judge Kim Wanker, who works in an office next to Lane’s, said courthouses throughout Nye County need the same type of security.

Wanker said judges working in Nye County also have been unable to get secured parking at the Deutch complex, meaning she and other judges have to walk through the front door with the same people they are ruling on.

“Every day you worry about it,” Wanker said. “I worry about it when I get out of my car. There is a time and a place for people to be carrying guns. At the courthouse is not one of them.”

Wanker and Lane said they are strong supporters of the Second Amendment, and both are gun owners. They simply don’t believe that people should be allowed to carry guns into courthouses in light of mass shootings in America and a string of violence across the nation that targeted judges and court workers in recent years.

Nevada has not been immune to courthouse violence. In 2006, Darren Mack killed his wife before shooting Family Court Judge Chuck Weller through a courthouse window in Reno. The judge had been presiding over the couple’s divorce. In January 2010, a gunman fatally shot court security officer Stan Cooper at the entrance of the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse in downtown Las Vegas before other officers shot and killed the gunman.

But Jabbour and other commissioners said during the Dec. 16 meeting that they have received complaints from citizens about the prohibition of weapons in the Deutch complex. The facility is also home to the county clerk and the district attorney’s office.

“The judges have set up fortresses in the complex here in Pahrump, leaving others to flounder and have arbitrarily decided whose life is more important than others,” Jabbour said during the meeting.

Jabbour and four other Nye County commissioners either did not respond to requests for comment for this story or declined requests for an interview.

Since the county measure on guns was approved, justices of the peace at the Pahrump courthouse have tried to handle some security measures on their own. Well into the courthouse hallway, far from the building’s entrance, they set up a metal detector and staffed it with a bailiff who intends to screen people for weapons.

Drawing a line

Meanwhile, Nye County is not alone in taking on the issue of weapons inside courthouses. Bill Raftery is a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia. He wrote an article in 2017 detailing all of the different approaches taken by states on the issue.

“(The debate) has been going on for decades, if not centuries,” Raftery said.

He said the think tank recommends that courthouses bar firearms for everyone other than law enforcement officers who have been authorized to provide court security.

Randy Harris is a Texas-based courthouse security expert for the private business U.S. Court Security Concepts. He, too, said there is much debate across the nation about the question of guns at courthouses.

“Courts in other places are struggling with it,” Harris said. “Some are saying yes, some are saying no.”

He said he does not recommend that the general public be allowed to carry guns in courthouses.

“ I am a second Amendment proponent … but there is a certain line you must draw in certain places,” Harris said. “Airports obviously is one and courthouses is another. In court cases somebody is going to lose. Somebody is going to be upset. So you have a lot of mixtures of emotions in courthouses that can go bad on you. It is not really a good place for weapons to be allowed.”

Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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