The Secret Service installed signs last month at the White House on the advice of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which prosecutes federal crimes in the nation’s capital.
USA Today reported that the signs appeared at the White House around the time of a winter storm that closed down much of the federal government for three days last month: “WARNING: Weapons Prohibited.”
Posted right outside guard shacks with metal detectors, the signs threaten fines and prison time for something that most White House visitors probably consider common sense: Don’t bring a gun into the White House.
So why the signs?
“The signs were put up literally because we have to by law,” said David Iacovetti, the deputy assistant director of public affairs for the U.S. Secret Service. “The only way we can search somebody and have those charges stick is have the sign posted.”
That law is the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
Neither the Secret Service nor the Justice Department could explain why it took 28 years to install the signs. But they said the lack of signage hasn’t impacted their ability to arrest and convict people threatening the White House complex.
Under Section 930 of the federal criminal code, it’s a federal Class A misdemeanor to bring a firearm or dangerous weapon into a federal facility, punishable by up to a year in prison. If you intend to commit a crime with that weapon, it becomes a Class E felony, with up to five years in prison.
But there’s a catch. The same law requires that notice of the penalties “be posted conspicuously at each public entrance to each federal facility.” Without the notice, a person can’t be convicted.
Iacovetti said the Secret Service installed the signs last month on the advice of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which prosecutes federal crimes in the nation’s capital.
U.S. Attorney spokesman Bill Miller said prosecutors have had occasional discussions with various law enforcement agencies about the sign requirement over the years, but that he wasn’t aware of any specific incident that triggered the new signs at the White House.
Despite the number of prominent federal buildings in the District of Columbia, prosecution under Section 930 is rare. A USA TODAY analysis of federal court data found only one case since 1995 where federal prosecutors in Washington enforced the law: James Von Brunn, the 2009 Holocaust Museum shooter who was also charged with murder.
Across the river in the Northern District of Virginia, there have been at least 52 cases over the past decade.
But federal prosecutors say the inability to charge people under Section 930 hasn’t been a problem because of the District of Columbia’s strict gun laws. The local law, which prohibits carrying a pistol without a license, also carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
“Our office is unique in that we prosecute both local as well as federal offenses, which gives us this option,” Miller said.
It also allows the Secret Service to arrest people for carrying weapons even before they get into the White House grounds. Recent arrests under that law include April Debois, a 24-year-old Michigan woman arrested by the Secret Service near the White House in 2014, and Joshua Wheeler, a 25-year-old intern caught trying to bring a gun into a congressional office building last year.
Debois pleaded guilty last week, and was sentenced to time served: Six days in jail.
The 2014 White House fence-jumper, Omar Gonzalez, was charged with a separate offense: entering a restricted building or grounds with a dangerous weapon (he was carrying a knife). That offense is punishable by up to 10 years; Gonzalez was sentenced to 17 months.
That law applies specifically to the White House, but it wouldn’t apply to someone who carried a weapon into the White House after being invited in.