The Ellis County Commissioners Court discussed the laws regarding the current security systems in place at the Ellis County Courthouse during its Tuesday meeting.
Commissioner Paul Perry presented the issue and said the current security enforcement is a violation of state law. He noted that, by not allowing any firearms in the public building, the commission is infringing on the rights of license holders.
"We do not have the right to keep the concealed licensed carry holder from coming to the general purpose area of this courthouse," Perry explained.
To currently access the courthouse, there are three deputies stationed in the basement who filter people in through a metal detector. Entrances on the main level are locked, which requires all visitors to enter through the basement.
"That is not in congruence with Texas law," Ellis County Sheriff Chuck Edge said. "They have a right to come into this building."
License holders are allowed in public buildings with a firearm, but they can be limited, Edge said. They can bring a firearm into the courthouse, but the commission can limit if it is allowed in the courtroom as long as the restriction is posted.
"The current situation with the metal detector downstairs and prohibiting the licensed to carry holders from bringing a firearm into this particular facility is not in accordance to the state law," Edge explained.
He also noted it is the duty of the commissioners' court to determine the security plan which the sheriff will carry out.
Edge said he has worked with the district attorney and Ellis County Judge Todd Little, who all agree that the current security is in violation of the law.
"I think we have a liability issue," Perry said.
Justice of the Peace Dan Cox touched on the issue and said that courtrooms come filled with emotion and can become unstable.
"The courtroom can be an explosive place in a hurry," Cox noted. "Emotions are high, reactions are quick and preparation is an absolute necessity."
He explained that he has seen two courtroom brawls and he is hesitant to allow guns in the courtroom regardless if the person has a license.
Perry noted the law states the county has to allow for licensed carry in the common areas, but the commissioners can look at possible limitations in judges' chambers and courtrooms.
Commissioner Lane Grayson said he is hesitant to approve opening the courthouse without a formal proposal. He is concerned about the possibility of additional costs in regards to regulating meetings and courtrooms.
Commissioner Kyle Butler agreed, but he is still not convinced they should open the courthouse to license holders without knowing who they are. He proposed having a deputy present to check licenses.
"I'd like to know who's in here with a gun," he said.
Little said he has done a lot of research about the issue and has come up with five goals he would like to focus on while developing the security plan.
His goals include: Balancing freedom with the responsibility of keeping people safe, eliminating gun-free zones for license holders, reduce liability to the county, increase courthouse accessibility and eliminate costly security measures in the building.
Little noted that people can walk into the Texas Capitol building in Austin with a gun. That should be the case in Ellis County, he said.
"I know there are crazies that are out there, but I cannot live my life every day worrying about the half a percent of society that's coming here to do me harm," Little explained.
Anita Brown, Downtown Development director and Heritage Preservation officer, said she wants to see the courthouse opened up to the public but not because of gun-rights laws. She wants it open so people can enjoy the historical integrity of the building the way it was intended.
"I don't care about a license to carry," Brown explained. "My heart is for the people who come to our town to see the beautiful historic buildings and this building in particular."
Brown noted that when the building was constructed, it was not meant to be entered through the basement. When people enter from the main level, they can enjoy the intricate woodwork in the entryways. She said the courthouse is the "crown jewel" of the county.
"It's a travesty having this building locked down where people can't get into it easily," Brown said. "It broke my heart when this building was locked up like it is, and my heart has been broken every day."
The commissioners did not determine a solution during its Tuesday meeting, but they unanimously approved to form an ad hoc committee with Perry, Little and Edge. The committee will meet and form a proposed solution which the commissioners will review during a workshop next month.
Samantha Douty, @SamanthaDouty