Safety & Security

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‘Guns in Parks’ Law: Long-Range Consequences for Sports Event Planners

25 Aug, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When Tennessee’s pro-gun governor, Bill Haslam, signed a bill permitting firearms in municipal parks, he inadvertantly gave the sports travel industry another influencer on its site selection process.

Because, after all, with guns allowed in Tennessee parks, they became legal on the sidelines and in the spectators stands of youth sports events playing out on the fields, courts and diamonds everywhere within those parks.

According to USA TODAY, the bill, which Gov. Bill Haslam signed in April, abolished the authority of municipal and county governments to ban handgun-carry permit-holders from bringing their guns into locally owned and operated parks.

The bill had been amended from its original form to restrict such guns in the immediate vicinity of a school-sanctioned event at a park while that event is underway. Opponents noted the law still allowed guns to be legally carried in areas where rec sports, travel teams, pickup games, adult leagues and more would be held. They also noted there was no definition of 'immediate vicinity.'

The issue of guns in parks is not new. National parks have allowed gun owners with permits since February 2010, and in 2011, then-Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia acted to permit the open carry of firearms in state parks. Supporters say the laws offer people a chance to legally protect themselves in parks, and that those laws are particularly valuable in areas of parks that are remote, rarely traveled to or sparsely used.

The Tennessee bill does allow cities and counties to leave up signs that say guns are banned in parks – even though the guns won't be banned for people with permits.

Haslam’s take on the problems opponents are pointing out was to express concern that the measure put the onus on local officials for enforcing the law.

"Overall, I believe the legislation in its final form is a vast improvement from the bill as initially introduced," Haslam wrote in a letter to the lieutenant governor and House speaker. "However, I am concerned that an unintended consequence may be operational challenges for local leaders in managing their parks in a safe, effective and consistent manner due to events and situations that could not have been anticipated in drafting this law."

By early August, those events and situations were becoming apparent.

According to an article in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, in an advisory opinion, wrote that contractors hosting special events in parks or managing public facilities could not ban people carrying weapons while possessing a handgun carry permit.

Contractors could be construed as sports event owners or rights-holders, by the way – those who would contract with the local government to rent the venues for the duration of an event.

In light of that opinion, Haslam has called on the legislature to revisit the law – something the newspaper termed “a reasonable suggestion for a measure that could have far-ranging ramifications.”

The issue of having guns in and around sports venues has been approached before. Major League Baseball has metal detectors outside all ball parks. Large college sports events routinely inspect bags as spectators enter stadiums. And even with the new bill having been signed, Metro Nashville officials said they still plan to ban guns at Nissan Stadium and Bridgestone Arena where the Titans and Predators play. (As a side note, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled recently that the NFL can ban off-duty police officers from bringing their guns into the stadium on game day.)

Over the years, there have been problems stemming from the presence of guns at sports events. In April of last year, in Forsyth County, Georgia, a man brought a youth baseball game to a screeching halt by pointing out that he had a firearm.

He's just walking around [saying] 'See my gun? Look, I got a gun and there's nothing you can do about it.' He knew he was frightening people. He knew exactly what he was doing," a parent told WSB-TV.

It was revealed that the local 911 line had received 22 calls about the situation. Forysth County deputies questioned the man, and found that he had a permit for the handgun. Authorities said since the man made no verbal threats or gestures, they could neither arrest him nor ask him to leave the park.

As a result of the new law, sports event planners may have another dynamic to consider when it comes to site selection. Some event owners prefer to host their events in municipal park facilities, and have done so for years. Others might routinely make plans with a private venue to host their sports event, but use municipal fields in case registration increases unexpectedly and overflow facilities are needed.

It is conceivable that sports event planners will need to ask CVBs and sports commissions about applicable firearms laws. It is also possible those with strong anti-gun beliefs could draft language for their proposals and contracts, dictating which facilities should be used in the event of an overflow.

In a poll on its home page, Sports Destination Management asked visitors whether their site selection choices would be influenced by a law similar to that in Tennessee, were they to be considering facilities in municipal parks. (To participate in the poll, or to see the results, click here.)

The Knoxville News-Sentinel noted the issue also stood to change the financial landscape, since nonprofits and other third-party contractors could face difficulties obtaining insurance for events they were planning for venues in parks that allowed firearms. In addition, the article noted that some teams or groups could face sanctions from their leagues or national organizations by using such venues.

The summer of 2015 will be remembered as one where Constitutional amendments influenced sports events. The First Amendment was big news with the Confederate Flag debate in South Carolina, and its effect on the business of sports. Now, it’s time to examine the Second Amendment and the resounding changes it could bring to sports events in Tennessee and other areas with similar laws.

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