The character of a nation is revealed by the values it defends during times of crisis. As the chief federal law enforcement officer for over half our state, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, no matter the moment, circumstance or pandemic.
And that oath and our rights do not end at a city’s limits.
Attorney General Barr recently instructed U.S. Attorneys around the country to be on the lookout for state and local directives “that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
As Attorney General Barr stated: “If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.”
Just a few days ago, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, signed an executive order attempting to temporarily “suspend” state law, as well as the Mississippi and United States Constitutions, authorizing the right to openly carry firearms, arguing it was necessary to reduce gun violence in Jackson.
While I agree with the mayor that gun violence has plagued our Capital City for too long, disarming law-abiding citizens and suspending constitutional rights are not the way to combat violent crime.
In times of crisis, our leaders should be giving people hope, not taking away their rights. During catastrophes, our leaders should be empowering our citizens, not disarming them.
Government’s first and most solemn responsibility is to protect the lives of its people. By attempting to prohibit the constitutional rights of people to defend themselves, Mayor Lumumba is sentencing all Americans who live, work or visit our Capital City, and especially our most vulnerable, to an unarmed existence in Jackson filled with fear, terror, and danger.
It is false for the mayor to say that many of the killings in Jackson could have been avoided if people would not have had a right to openly carry firearms in Mississippi. Our office works closely with the Jackson Police Department, and I have not seen a single case where a killing in Jackson could have been prevented if open carry rights had been revoked. The mayor’s illegal order will only disarm law-abiding citizens and result in more victims.
Despite his statement to the contrary, the mayor also knows full well, as a former criminal defense attorney, that the right to openly carry firearms is not interfering with law enforcement taking criminals off the street.
For over 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has authorized law enforcement to stop a person and investigate whether a crime has been committed based on a reasonable suspicion, a much lower standard than the probable cause standard mentioned by the mayor. Nothing prevents a police officer from asking questions of anyone, even with no basis for suspecting a crime has been committed.
It is also untrue for the mayor to say the right to openly carry a firearm provides protection to criminals. Criminals are trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves and being arrested. In all of our work with JPD, I cannot recall a single instance where a criminal was openly carrying a firearm and somehow that firearm magically protected him from arrest.
The recent murders of innocent children in Jackson is horrific, and the criminals who committed these vile acts should swiftly be brought to justice. However, despite what the mayor would have you believe, there is absolutely no connection between the right to openly carry a firearm and these tragic murders. None. The mayor is using an unrelated tragedy to further his political aims, and that is despicable.
If the mayor truly wants to effectively address violent crime in Jackson, he could begin by increasing police officers’ pay, hiring more cops, and actually supporting our law enforcement.
Our Jackson police officers are paid below the state average, our Jackson Police Department is operating at less than 50% capacity, and our mayor seeks to “name and shame” officers during administrative investigations. We can effectively fight violent crime by first taking care of our law enforcement heroes who take care of us.
History provides no support for the restrictions the mayor attempts to impose here, and the mayor’s justifications are not connected or substantiated in any way to support his illegal actions. Despite what the mayor says, the open carry rights of Mississippians have not led to an increase in gun violence in Jackson.
If we are to preserve the character of our nation and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” we must remain vigilant and collectively act to protect and preserve the constitutional liberties and civil rights of every American, especially in times of crisis.
Mike Hurst is the U.S. attorney for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
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