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Last week, Second-Amendment types openly rejoiced when the County Commission decided not to delay and voted 13-5 along party lines against opting out of the state law allowing permit holders to carry firearms in parks. Meanwhile, the week before, when City Council went the opposite way and voted 6-3 against removing its 30-year ordinance banning guns in parks, gun-control advocates quietly celebrated the triumph of cosmopolitan pragmatism.
But as a result of the city and county’s conflicting positions, Knoxville residents and civic leaders now face the unenviable task of sorting through legal gray areas, some that the state attorney general has provided guidance on and others that remain unclear. And for the most part, the burden of these questions falls on permit holders, who—should they choose to exercise their newfound right—run a greater risk of unknowingly violating the law.
Oh Government, Give Us a Sign
First, there’s no requirement that either the city or the county post signs indicating where guns are legal or illegal. When City Council voted to maintain its 30-year-old ordinance prohibiting guns, nothing changed; guns that had been illegal in parks were still illegal in parks. And under its decades-old ordinance, says City Law Director Ron Mills, the city is not required to post signs indicating that firearms are illegal.
Meanwhile, when the county chose not to opt out of the state law, it, too, left its statutes unchanged. And the state law only requires a local government post signs if it chooses to opt out.
So both gun carriers and those who want to avoid gun carriers should familiarize themselves with city and county maps.
But those maps will only take you so far. The city and county share some properties affected by the ordinances, such as intersecting greenways and county parks that fall within city limits.
On jointly owned parks, the state law does provide direction. “The way the state statute reads, if it’s jointly owned or operated by municipalities or counties, then there has to be a majority vote by both legislative bodies to opt out of the statute for a ban to apply,” explains county Law Director Bill Lockett.
This hasn’t happened here, so the law defaults to the legal-to-carry provision. That means at a park like Charter Doyle, within city limits and jointly owned by the county and city, permit holders can presumably carry firearms without threat of a fine, although the county has yet to explicitly confirm this.
Regarding shared greenways, it gets even more complicated.
“Say you’ve got 300 feet county [greenway] then 300 feet city,” Lockett says. “Well, is the entire greenway jointly owned or controlled? To me, the greenway is a whole.”
In that case, any part of a city greenway shared with any part of a county greenway could make it legal for permit-holders to carry on the entire greenway. (Unless, of course, both the city and county independently voted in the majority to opt out of the state law for this specific parcel.)
“Ten Mile Creek’s a real good example,” says county Parks and Recreation Director Doug Bataille. “You’ve got one end, which they call the Jean Teague Greenway, way down on West Hills Park. So that starts in the city’s park, so it’s definitely city property. Now it goes out of that onto private property easements, and eventually goes onto county easements, through a county park, and then back to city easements. So it’s a real mix.”
Bataille added that he thinks just the intersections are shared and not the entire greenways. He says he’s waiting for guidance from the county or attorney general on this question. Lockett says he’s unsure: “I don’t know what a court would decide.”
Then there’s the question of county greenways that run through private property. “When someone grants an easement, you know, the easement is subject to whatever laws apply to the easement,” Lockett says. “So, again, that’s another question that will have to interpreted.”
And then there are schools.
A separate statute prohibits carrying guns at public or private schools, and that includes buses, athletic grounds, etc. The state attorney general issued an opinion—which does not carry the weight of law—that says it’s illegal to carry guns in parks when a school-sponsored event is occurring. But the statute does not require either the school or the county to post signs indicating a temporary prohibition of guns during the event.
So to recap: In addition to committing county and city limits to memory, and determining which government owns and operates which park, permit holders will need to familiarize themselves with the sports schedule of local high-school and middle-school teams that frequent their preferred parks.
But does a school-sponsored event refer to any event, or simply athletic events? What about a car wash or picnic?
“I think the prohibition would probably apply,” says Lockett, again with the caveat that this is merely his interpretation. “If you’ve got an athletic event in a public park and it’s school-sponsored and they’re banned during that event, it would seem that the park would be transformed into grounds of a school-sponsored event if it were a picnic.”
And would a ban go into effect the minute the game begins, and be withdrawn the minute it ends, or is there a buffer around the event?
Lockett says the attorney general recommends looking at the issue on a case-by-case basis, so there are no firm rules spelled out. “But I don’t think the prohibition would be the entire day, I think it would only be during the period of time that the school sponsored activity was scheduled and taking place,” Lockett says.
It may be a good idea for permit holders to sign up for a newsletter or calendar of events from Knox County Schools in order to stay within the law.
A Broyle-ing Debate
Stepping back, the convoluted nature of these laws, the difficulty in enforcing them, and the persistent ambiguity are largely why Commissioner Amy Broyles, who sponsored the opt-out measure, wanted more time to examine the law before moving forward on a vote.
“I still wish that we had deferred it for 30 days and had a workshop,” Broyles says. “I don’t think that it would have changed anybody’s mind—probably not. But still, the more information that you have, the better informed a decision you can make.”
Broyles, who is a gun owner and enthusiast herself, says it would have been beneficial for the city and county to arrive at the same decision, which is why she floated the idea of having a joint city/county workshop to the city’s vice mayor. But, she says, there was little interest.
“I think it’s a shame,” she says. “Sometimes I think it’s very appropriate for city government and county government to work together on an issue.”
Broyles also laments the tone of the debate, with arguments that drew on the Christian-Newsom murders and the shooting last summer at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, which Broyles witnessed firsthand. “I felt like [the Christian-Newsom murders] was a real cheap shot to take, to use that.”
Both Broyles and Lockett say the state Legislature will likely have to hammer out answers to these questions in the next session.
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