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Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s order banning open-carry in the city has drawn a lawsuit and a unanimous Jackson City Council rebuke. (Photo by Ashton Pittman)

Jackson Mayor’s Open Carry Ban ‘Exploited’ Pandemic, Bipartisan Critics Say

In mid-April, someone fired a spray of bullets from a vehicle outside an apartment complex on Jackson’s Wood Village Drive. Queenyanna Davis was in her living room when one bullet broke through the glass, striking her in the head. The 5-year-old child died at the hospital later that day. 

On Monday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba cited the girl’s death and those of six others who have lost their lives in the capital city in recent weeks as he explained his decision to issue an executive order banning people from openly carrying firearms during the COVID-19 crisis.

“This was done after great contemplation. It was also done after witnessing very heinous acts in the city of Jackson,” Lumumba said Monday. “For those curious as to my motivation, I’m motivated by what I have seen recently looking at the officer cams as they arrived on scene, for the babies that were killed recently.”

The move, though, is “unconstitutional and illegal,” the Mississippi Justice Institute a lawsuit that the Mississippi Institute for Justice filed Tuesday on behalf of Mississippi House Rep. Dana Criswell, a Republican from Olive Branch.

It also set off a storm of criticism from Mississippi leaders, including elected Democrats in the capital city.

Council Condemns Mayor’s Order

Mississippi House Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch.

On Tuesday, the liberal-leaning Jackson City Council unanimously rejected the mayor’s order in a 6-0 vote on a non-binding resolution even after he described the pain of watching young children in the city die due to gun violence. In March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that, adjusted for population size, Mississippi has the second-highest gun homicide rate in the country.

Safiya Omari, Lumumba’s chief of staff, defended the open-carry ban during Tuesday’s meeting, saying that Jackson’s predominantly African American population has suffered from gun violence disproportionately compared with the rest of the state. Black Mississippians are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19, suffering a majority of cases and deaths despite making up less than 40% of the state population.

This afternoon, Ward 4 Councilman De’Keither Stamps and Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks held a press conference to explain their decision to condemn Lumumba’s executive order. 

“As someone who is a devout Christian, the Bible says that we must obey the laws. This is not a debate on whether the open-carry law is beneficial to some citizens or another,” Banks said. “This is making sure the City of Jackson upholds those laws. … The clear position of the city council is that although we know we face a problem with gun violence and with the types of guns we have on the streets, this is still not a reason for us to not uphold the laws or to obey the Constitution of the State of Mississippi or of the United States of America.”

Stamps first learned about the mayor’s executive order when a friend in New York sent him a text message on Friday after learning about it online. Lumumba did not consult with members of the council before issuing the order, the Ward 4 councilman said. While Stamps said he understands Lumumba’s concerns over gun violence, he said the City has to think about the practical implications of a potentially unconstitutional executive order.

“We can’t just get distracted and separate the law from our emotions. Because emotionally, your heart goes out to all the people who have lost their lives, all their families. But the law can drag the City’s liability into it and the taxpayers’ money into paying lawsuits,” Stamps said.

Jackson is already locked in a legal battle with MJI over a law the city passed last year creating a 15-foot “buffer zone” to block protests near the the city’s abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Clinic volunteers say demonstrators regularly violate the ordinance and that police have not enforced it.

‘How Many Babies Do We Have to Bury?’

Lumumba, who is up for re-election in 2021, first announced the open-carry ban in a video message Friday in which he said little about COVID-19 or how it relates to banning open carry. The mayor focused instead on urging city residents and leaders across the state to support efforts to repeal Mississippi’s 2013 open-carry law.

“The open-c-arry law interferes with law enforcement’s ability to take illegal guns off of the streets. Prior to open-carry, when Jackson police officers saw a gun in plain view, it gave them probable cause to seize the weapon and determine whether or not it was an illegal gun,” Lumumba said in the video. “The open-carry Law not only provides protection for individuals who are armed with illegal weapons, but it also creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the community.”

Those concerns, the mayor said, drove his decision to issue the order.

“If we are sincere in our hope for better outcomes and a brighter future for our youth, we must be moved to action,” he said. “It is this call-to-action that has led to my decision to issue an executive order suspending open-carry law during the COVID-19 civil emergency. … How many babies do we have to bury to appease someone’s desire to open carry?”

But Lumumba has not drawn a clear line between open-carry and the recent shooting deaths. In an April 26 letter, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, questioned the mayor’s suggestion that the order might prevent further killings.

“These heinous crimes are heartbreaking, especially because innocent children were victims. As Mississippi’s Chief Legal Officer, I stand ready to assist the City in the prosecution of those who played a role in this violence, to the extent Mississippi law allows, and to provide victims advocacy services for the victims and their families,” the attorney general wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, however, there is no evidence that the State’s open carry law was implicated in these crimes or that your order would have changed the outcomes.”

The Jackson City Council unanimously voted to reject Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba’s order banning open carry. Ward 4 Councilman De’Keither Stamps, second from left in this photo a September 2019 meeting, said he worried the order would result in steep legal costs for the City. (Photo by Ashton Pittman)

During Wednesday’s press conference, Councilman Stamps said the City ought to instead double down on other efforts to reduce gun violence, like the Jackson Police Department’s recent confiscation of around 23 illegally owned guns last week.

“Let’s do that. Let’s double down on that and get those results,” Stamps said.

The Ward 4 councilman said he not only supports open-carry, but open carries himself.

“I don’t have a bodyguard, I don’t have any of that. I traverse the same streets and many of us open carry because JPD is an after response. After crimes happen, you call the police. Well, the only proactive thing that a legal, law-abiding citizen can do is arm themselves,” Stamps said. 

“Because we live in the reality of gunfire all night long, with criminals shooting guns all night. Then you have white nationalist groups parading around our city with guns and masks on. And then you’ve got law-abiding citizens that know all this. So for the law-abiding citizens, the only thing we have is open-carry to shield ourselves.”

On Tuesday, the city council hired attorney DeShawn T. Martin to help the City navigate legal challenges arising from Lumumba’s order. The hire was necessary, Banks said, because the city attorney, who represents both the council and the mayor’s office, recused himself amid the conflict.

Fitch: ‘Rescind the Order Immediately’

On Tuesday, Aaron Rice, the director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, accused Lumumba of issuing the order under false pretenses.

Mississippi Justice Institute Director Aaron Rice. (Photo courtesy MJI)

“A serious pandemic is not an opportunity for unconstitutional virtue signaling by grandstanding politicians. Mayor Lumumba has exploited the present public health crisis as a pretext to target law-abiding people who are exercising their constitutional rights,” said Rice, whose organization is the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public policy, a conservative-leaning think tank in Jackson.

MJI filed the lawsuit Tuesday on Criswell’s behalf. The representative said Lumumba’s announcement “shocked” him  as someone who spends a lot of time in the capital city.

“I take the protection of myself and my family very seriously and believe deeply in the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The mayor’s attempt to disarm me and deny me the ability of self-defense puts me and my family in danger anytime we are in Jackson,” Criswell said in MJI’s statement.

Criswell is a member of the National Rifle Association and the National Association for Gun Rights.

Before MJI’s lawsuit, Attorney General Fitch called on the mayor to cancel the order.

“The right to keep and bear arms is a natural right, enshrined in the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Mississippi. … Mississippians enjoy the right to lawfully open carry in all of Mississippi’s 82 counties and in every municipality within the State. Jackson is no exception,” Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, wrote in an April 26 letter to the mayor. “The City lacks statutory authority to suspend a state statute or a constitutional provision. Accordingly, I ask that you rescind the Order immediately.”

While the Constitution guarantees “the right to bear arms,” there is significant debate among scholars and politicians throughout the country about how expansive that right is, and whether it necessarily protects a right to openly carry firearms in public.

In her letter, Fitch cited a Mississippi law, Section 45-9-53, which says “no county or municipality may adopt any ordinance that restricts the possession, carrying, transportation, sale, transfer or ownership of firearms or ammunition or their counterparts.”

But Lumumba pointed to a different Mississippi law. Section 45-17-7 permits mayors who have proclaimed a “civil emergency” to “in the interest of public safety and welfare … issue such other orders as are necessary for the protection of life and property.”

In her letter, though, Fitch rejected the mayor’s claim that the law authorizes mayors to “suspend any valid state statute or constitutional right,” even following a raft of killings.

Jackson’s mayor’s efforts to respond to gun violence include his embrace of Project Eject, the Trump administration’s 2017 revival of a controversial George W. Bush-era Project Safe Neighborhoods program that brings local law enforcement and federal prosecutors together in an effort to give those caught with illegal weapons longer federal prison time, often in facilities far from their home states. Critics, such as criminologist David Kennedy, warn that the strategy has long targeted people of color in U.S. cities that employed the strategy.

So far, police sweeps for crimes beyond gun possession have been part of Project Eject with the mayor both distancing himself from the controversial strategy while allowing the Jackson Police Department to continue to participate.

There is also a question of how well the strategy works to reduce violence. After its implementation, though, Jackson gun-violence deaths surged in both 2018 and 2019, reaching levels last seen about two decades ago.

Lumumba’s civil emergency order is currently set to expire Thursday, at which point his open-carry ban would also expire. But with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the mayor could extend both.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, left, and U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, right, have each accused Democratic mayors in Mississippi of infringing on rights with COVID-19 orders. (Courtesy Lynn Fitch)

On April 30, after this story first published, Fitch filed an amicus brief with the United States District Court for the Southern District supporting Criswell and MJI’s lawsuit.

“Jackson has no authority to suspend open carry and it is shameful to use the current crisis as a pretext to revoke the constitutional rights of the people. I stand ready to protect our rights and defend our laws,” Fitch said in a statement.

The court filing argues that Lumumba “makes no attempt to connect the conduct it bans—openly carrying firearms—to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Given the mayor’s long-standing and well-documented opposition to Mississippians’ right to open carry, it is abundantly clear that the order serves as a pretext to achieve a goal he has sought for years, a repeal of the right to open carry,” the amicus filing reads. “The Order exploits a global health crisis to advance a policy goal that is unauthorized by law. It cannot stand.”

Barr Memo: Look for Rights Violations

Lumumba is not the only Democratic mayor who has tangled with Republican state officials or conservative legal organizations over local COVID-19 measures. After consulting with local religious leaders earlier this month, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons ordered an end to in-person church services and drive-in church services, saying the risk of spreading the virus was too great in his town, which is predominantly black. 

“God has his way of coming to his people to say, ‘I want you to decrease so you can increase in me.’ And so I think this is a moment of time when he wants us to be creative. And in that creation, we’re showing greater love to our brothers and sisters,” Simmons told the Mississippi Free Press earlier this month, urging churches to adopt livestream broadcasts and other alternatives to in-person worship services.

After the Mississippi Justice Institute and another legal organization, Liberty First, filed a federal lawsuit, Simmons backed down, issuing a new order on April 21 that allows churches to have drive-in services, but provides uniform regulations that also apply to businesses and other organizations that offer drive-in services. Patrons must keep their windows up except when “receiving services rendered by the establishment.”

Simmons’ original order drew a rebuke from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who claimed earlier this month in a statement that Simmons, who is himself a Christian, was “singling out” churches for discriminatory treatment amid the pandemic. Barr also filed a statement of interest in federal court to accompany the complaint.

On Monday, after Lumumba announced his open-carry order, the U.S. attorney general asked federal prosecutors to look for cases in which state or local governments could be issuing COVID-19 orders that violate constitutional rights or liberties.

Mayor Simmons Press Conference - Closing Churches - Mississippi Free Press
Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons defended his decision to close in-person and drive-in church service before reneging on April 21. (Photo courtesy City of Greenville.)

“If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an 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,” Barr said in an April 27 memo to U.S. attorneys, the Associated Press reported.

Group Plans Open Carry Rally

On Friday, Reopen Mississippi, a group of conservative activists who drove around the governor’s mansion last weekend to protest social distancing measures, will hold a “Reopen Mississippi Open Carry” rally on the steps on the Mississippi Capitol Building in Jackson. The group opposes Reeves’ decision to continue keeping many “nonessential” businesses, such as hair salons and movie theaters, closed and other social distancing measures, like limiting most social gatherings to 10 or fewer. Julie Napp, a Chick-Fil-A employee who lives in Biloxi, leads the group.

“How much are you willing to give up? Freedom to assemble? Freedom to work? Freedom to leave home? Freedom to bear arms?” one of the group’s flyers reads. “Tell Governor Reeves and Mayor Lumumba they have gone too far!”

Small text at the bottom of the flyer, though, requests participants take steps to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus: “Please practice social distancing guidelines of 6 feet. Masks are optional.”

Information on coronavirus prevention measures is available at the University of Mississippi Medical center’s website at umc.edu/coronavirus and at cdc.gov/coronavirus.

The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.

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