Put Down Your Gun

By David Feige

In an unmarked corridor on the fifth floor of Bronx Supreme Court, a heavy steel door marks the point at which the custody of a prisoner is transferred from the New York City Department of Corrections to a court officer. The beige paint on the door is chipped and scratched, and the tiny pane of thick plexiglass is nearly opaque from grime. On one side of this door are courtrooms filled with jurors and judges, spectators and lawyers. On the other are bare walls, bars and handcuffs.

There is a sign on the side of the door that one sees when passing from the court side into the realm of corrections. It, too, is scratched and worn, but its simple admonition suggests a fundamental change that could go a long way toward preventing the kind of deadly violence that erupted in an Atlanta courtroom last week. It reads: "No Weapons Beyond This Point."

The massacre in Atlanta, in which a defendant grabbed a gun from a sheriff's deputy and then killed Judge Rowland W. Barnes, another sheriff's deputy and a court stenographer, is sure to fuel hours of analysis by security consultants on how to guard judges more effectively and make our courthouses safer. Law enforcement unions will undoubtedly call for more manpower and a higher officer-to-defendant ratio. Unfortunately, it's doubtful that anyone will propose a sensible solution that could have prevented the killings in the first place: making courthouses gun-free zones.

The typical hall of justice is chockablock with weaponry. Court officers, court clerks, parole and probation officers - not to mention police officers - all carry handguns for the ostensible purpose of maintaining order and security. This stands in stark contrast to our prisons. While corrections officers may carry weapons in public, in nearly every jail and prison across the country those guns get checked at the door.

One of the elemental rules of a prison is that any weapon will eventually be turned against its owner. That sane and simple logic dictates that firearms are restricted to the guards in the towers and on the perimeter. With no guns to take away, the net result of overpowering a guard is just that - having overpowered a guard. Nobody is going to shoot his way to freedom.

This bit of prison wisdom leads to the question of why anyone should be carrying a gun inside a courthouse. Most courtrooms are terrible places in which to fire a weapon - they're small and crowded and any shooting is highly likely to cause innocent casualties. They are also easy places in which to restrict the possession of weapons - most have a secure perimeter and rules that require most everyone entering or leaving to submit to a search.

The appropriate mix of proper manpower and alternative technology - stun belts (which fit under a person's clothing and can zap him with 50,000 volts), pepper spray and other nonlethal weapons - can secure defendants without guns. (Or, even if handguns are the only weapon that make citizens and court officers feel secure, there is no reason they can't be restricted to a small group of guards at critical points of entry and exit.)

Police and court officers will not take kindly to being stripped of their weapons; it is an article of faith among them that being better armed than the bad guys is critical to safety and security. But they need only consider the blood on the floor of that Atlanta courtroom to see the folly of that belief.

David Feige, a public defender in the Bronx and Soros Justice Media Fellow, is the author of the forthcoming book "Indefensible."

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