Senate Dem Leader: ‘Disaster’ Could Result from New Guns-in-Parks Law

Press release from the Democratic caucus of the Tennessee Senate, July 31, 2015:

Sen. Harris hosts teleconference with gun safety advocates,
complete remarks at the end of this release

NASHVILLE – Joined by gun safety advocates and a former chief of police, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris talked about the danger to Tennessee concert goers posed by an attorney general’s ruling forcing private entities to allow guns at concerts.

“If this is allowed to stand, some of these major festivals may decide to end or move out of public parks,” Sen. Harris said. “A few reasonable people may avoid going just to avoid risk. Given the economic impact of these festivals, we have to do something so that people can feel safe at major festivals and concerts. We need legislation that makes clear that organizers can ban guns at these events when they believe there is a security risk.”

Junaid Odubeko, a Nashville attorney who served in the Bredesen administration and provides legal counsel to the Senate Democrats, said the ruling will stop city and county governments from banning guns in their parks, including at major festivals, even if these governments contract with private, third-party entities to operate the parks.

“The AG has opined that the legislature’s actions here are clear and unambiguous,” Odubeko said. “The legislature wanted to take away the ability of local governments to keep people from carrying guns in parks. From my review of the law, I would say that the AG correctly interpreted the legislative intent of the new law.”

There have been at least 20 accidental shootings in Tennessee so far this year, according to Beth Joslin Roth, policy director for the Safe Tennessee Project.

“The frequency of these kinds of incidents is alarming,” Roth said. “What’s even more alarming is the possibility of these kinds of accidental shootings happening in extremely crowded situations such as an outdoor concert venue or festival. Unlike those who describe accidental shootings as ‘acts of God,’ we believe that they are 100 percent preventable.”

Retired Memphis Chief of Police James Bolden spoke from his experience in law enforcement on the danger guns can pose in large crowds where alcohol is consumed.

“At the Memphis in May festival, at any given time we could have 75,000 citizens cramped into a small space,” Bolden said. “Even if you took a small percentage and allowed them to bring firearms, we’re setting ourselves up for a disaster of catastrophic proportions. Police won’t know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and would have to make a snap decision.”

Sen. Harris will host a roundtable in Nashville with gun safety advocates to continue the discussion, tentatively set for Aug. 13.

Complete remarks from Senator Harris from today’s call:

As many of you know, the Tennessee Assembly debated a number of bills this legislative session with respect to guns. We saw bills that would eliminate background checks, bills to permit guns in parks, guns on street corners, guns at playgrounds, guns at school extracurricular events, guns in work parking lots, and guns in school parking lots, to name a few. There were dozens and dozens of gun bills that seemed partly designed to flatter the NRA leadership.

The good news is that Democrats in the Senate and House were able to kill or delay many of those bills, but a small handful did pass. And now we, as a state, have to figure out how to deal with the changed landscape and ramifications of those that passed. One of those bills that became law after being signed by the Governor, the guns-in-parks bill, seems to create serious safety challenges for communities across the state.

I represent downtown Memphis, among several other neighborhoods, and the guns-in-parks law, once passed, has created confusion for festivals and other large-crowd events, like Memphis in May, that take place in downtown Memphis parks.

It’s not just Memphis in May, there are large-crowd events at parks across the state, including the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, and the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Bristol. The total reported economic impact of just those four festivals alone is almost $150 million.

(According to reports, the CMA Music Festival generated $46.8 million in direct visitor spending in 2015; Memphis in May generated $70 million in economic impact; the Riverbend Festival generated $24 million in economic impact; and Rhythm in generated $5 million in local impact.)

As a result, my office talked to attorneys from some of the various affected communities about the new law and, at the same time, asked the AG to give opinion on whether public parks can continue to permit guns for law enforcement, military and security personnel at these large-crowd events, but ban guns for all others.
That opinion from the AG was published just yesterday and we have convened this emergency conference call to notify stakeholders of the opinion and start the process of working to repeal, modify, and fix any problems with this new law.

At this time, we will brief remarks from participants on this call. First, we will begin with Junaid Odubeko.
Mr. Odubeko is a Nashville attorney and legal advisor to Tennessee Senate Democrats. He has previously served as Legal Counsel to Governor Phil Bredesen, where his portfolio of responsibilities included working with the Tennessee AG on behalf of the Governor. Mr. Odubeko will give us the legal summary of what the AG opinion did.

Next we want to here brief remarks from Beth Roth. Ms. Roth is the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Safe Tennessee Project, which is a grassroots organization dedicated to addressing gun violence and gun safety in Tennessee.

Finally, we have remarks from Mr. James Bolden. Mr. Bolden has been the chief law enforcement official for the largest police force in the state of Tennessee, the Memphis Police Division. In addition, he has served the state as a chief law enforcement official and in various managerial capacities with the MPD, including deputy director. Mr. Bolden will give us the perspective of law enforcement in working and managing these large crowd events.

Thank you to all the participants. Let me start to wrap by saying that in my opinion, if these new laws regarding guns-at-large crowd events” are all allowed stand, some of these long-standing festivals will have to consider ending or moving out of public parks. Reasonable festival organizers will want to avoid the enhanced liability that will come with a silly law that forces together guns, music fans, young folks, drinkers and festival revelers. A few reasonable people will just stop going to avoid the risk. Given the economic impact of some of these events, among other considerations, we have to fix this.

We will not be taking questions or comments on this call. As a group, we are still digesting the ramifications of guns-at-large-crowd events and the AG Opinion published yesterday.

However, call participants have indicated to me that they are willing to talk on an individual basis. Their contact information will be issued to press at the conclusion of this call.

We will have a follow-up roundtable discussion on Aug. 13 to kick-off public push to repeal or significantly modify this legislation and generally discuss ways to reduce gun violence in Tennessee. At our roundtable, we will have nationally recognized gun safety advocates as well as leaders from major metropolitan school system in Tennessee to speak about school security. More details will be forthcoming.

Thank you again for participating. Again, our roundtable date is Aug. 13. We will keep you informed. Thanks again.

State Sen. Lee Harris represents District 29 in Memphis and serves as Senate Minority Leader. Follow the Senate Democratic Caucus on Twitter at @TNSenateDems.