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‘We carry guns': Armed judges in spotlight after Ohio attack

The question of whether judges should be armed got renewed attention after a judge who was carrying a gun was shot outside his courthouse and fired back


Officials consult near the crime scene at the Huntington Bank, next to the Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, Monday Aug. 21, 2017, after Jefferson County Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. was ambushed and shot while walking to work early Monday morning.

Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — More judges are carrying weapons than most people realize, even though attacks on judges remain rare, surveys and experts say.

The question of whether judges should be armed got renewed attention this week after an Ohio judge who was carrying a gun was shot outside his courthouse and fired back.

Jefferson County Judge Joseph Bruzzese is recovering from the shooting Monday in Steubenville, along the Ohio River roughly 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of Pittsburgh.

“We carry guns,” a judge said in a survey that was part of the National Judicial College’s 2014 analysis of personal and on-site security measures. The report didn’t identify respondents.

“I now carry an easily accessible handgun with me at all times,” another judge said in the judicial college’s April security survey. “I have received firearms training and continue to practice and receive ongoing gun safety and training.”

In 2014, four judges in Ohio’s 4th District appeals court in southern Ohio issued an order allowing them to carry guns.

Whether a judge should carry a gun is a frequent question John Muffler gets at the judicial security seminars he teaches around the country.

“There are plenty who are carrying them now because of their position, and they’re aware that there are risks associated with the decisions they make and the positions they have,” said Muffler, retired from the U.S. Marshals Service and now director of MOSAIC Threat Assessment Systems for Gavin de Becker & Associates, a private security agency.

Judges should take additional precautions shielding their movements and home addresses when possible, says Muffler and others. They also recommend against judges having guns in courtrooms if other security officials are carrying weapons to reduce the danger of injuries from cross-fire.

Judges with guns in courtrooms also raises the risk of objections from defense attorneys, since it could signal judges’ fear of a defendant whose case they’re overseeing.

A few states ban guns inside courthouses altogether, such as Rhode Island, although it does allow police to carry stun guns.

Tennessee in 2011 allowed judges to carry weapons into their own courthouses after 16 hours of initial training and eight hours repeated annually. That training requirement was later repealed. Wyoming allows judges to carry weapons and decide if anyone else can bring a weapon into their courtroom, but limits the power of judges to ban guns in courthouses.

Judges have come to the realization they’re not immune from violence, said Lake County Judge Eugene Lucci, a former police officer who teaches judges about safety in Ohio and nationwide.

Lucci estimates about one in 10 Ohioans have permits to carry concealed weapons, and believes judges carry at a higher rate. He recommends judges with guns undergo the same training as police officers.

Investigators are still looking for the motive behind Bruzzese’s shooting. The judge was overseeing a wrongful death lawsuit against a local housing authority filed by the suspect, who was shot dead by a probation officer.

Other attacks on judges have had direct links to cases in front of them:

— Last year, a Florida man was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison for trying to kill federal Judge Timothy Corrigan in 2013 in what prosecutors said was an assassination attempt. The suspect faced going to prison for violating probation previously imposed by Corrigan for a 2008 firebombing attack.

— In Texas in 2015, State District Judge Julie Kocurek was wounded by a gunman in an ambush outside her Austin home. Authorities charged three men in the shooting, with federal prosecutors saying the trio believed an upcoming hearing before Kocurek would jeopardize their fraudulent financial schemes.

— In 2006 in Reno, Nevada, Family Court Judge Chuck Weller was wounded by bullet fragments and glass after a man whose contentious divorce Weller had handled shot at the judge through his courthouse office window with a high-powered rifle.

Weller said it’s up to individual judges to decide whether they should carry a weapon. He said all people who carry guns, including judges, should have the proper training.

“I don’t see any reason to deny judges the right to carry firearms, but I’m not advocating one way or another about whether they should,” Weller said.

Two of every 100 judges told the National Judicial College’s 2014 survey they’d been physically attacked at some point.