TFA: Be Careful, Guns-in-Parks Law Contains ‘Felony Trap’

Press release from the Tennessee Firearms Association, July 31, 2015:

Tennessee Firearms Association concerned that complexity and vagueness of gun laws in Tennessee create a “felony trap” for law abiding citizens in public parks.

Nashville, TN – The Tennessee Firearms Association today expressed severe concern that Tennessee’s Attorney General issues opinion which could further the confusion over whether individuals who have been issued handgun permits can carry handguns in public parks without any risk of criminal prosecution.

“The fact that there is so much uncertainty over what Tennessee law allows with respect to handgun permit holders carrying handguns for self-defense in public parks is an unnecessary risk to the citizens of this state that the Legislature has allowed to exist” said Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris. “But this should come as no surprise given Governor Haslam’s record of working against the rights of law abiding gun owners and instead more consistently siding with those like Mayor Bloomberg who has worked to oppress fundamental human rights. It is also unfortunate that despite having a Republican super majority in the Legislature for the last five years that Legislative leadership has continued to ignore this and numerous related problems that simply infringe the fundamental rights of the citizens as guaranteed by the State Constitution and the 2nd Amendment.”

The Tennessee Attorney General this week issued AG Opinion No. 15-063 in response to certain questions by Senator Lee Harris. A 2015 law, Tennessee Public Chapter 250, repealed the authority of local governments to ban firearms in public parks by civilian handgun permit holders. Senator Harris asked whether third parties could ban the possession of handguns in public parks by individuals who have been issued civilian handgun permits. Specifically, Senator Harris asked whether the rental, lease or other third party operation or use of public parks would allow those third parties to ban the possession of handguns in public parks despite the 2015.

In this week’s opinion, the Attorney General concluded that state law also prohibits third parties from banning firearms in public parks. The Opinion states that because the local governments are prohibited from banning handguns that the local governments cannot “give” the power to close the parks to third persons because the local government has been denied that power.

The Tennessee Firearms Association generally agrees with the conclusions set forth in the Attorney General’s opinion. However, the Tennessee Firearms Association believes that the opinion, read in isolation, creates potential and unnecessary confusion regarding the current status of Tennessee law on this subject. This confusion can result in civilians with handgun permits being arrested on felony charges.

Specifically, the law now preserves and further confuses a serious problem under Tennessee law where public parks are suddenly and without notice “morphed” into being classified as “school grounds” if the park is at any time used by a school. This dangerous trap was acknowledged by the Attorney General last fall in AG Opinion 14-088. The Attorney General does not make reference to the school grounds issue that was discussed in Opinion 14-088 in the opinion released this week.

In Opinion 14-88, the Attorney General concluded that when public parks are being used by schools the possession of firearms is treated the same as if the individual possessed a firearm on school grounds under the school grounds statute, Tenn. Code Ann § 39-17-1309. This felony trap would exist even if the “parks” statute appeared to otherwise allow handgun permit holders to be armed in the park.

Consequently, if the third party using the park is a school, which is defined very broadly in the law, then the possession of firearms in the park by handgun permit holders would be automatically prohibited. Unfortunately, the law as it now exists is not clear whether the school’s use of the park for school purposes would render the entire park a “gun free zone” or, as the Attorney General has stated in Opinion 14-088, only those portions of the park that are being used by the school.

This year, the felony trap related to the use of parks by schools was again brought to the attention of the General Assembly by the Tennessee Firearms Association. The General Assembly was alerted before this legislation was finally amended and passed of the existence of this trap. Despite those concerns, the General Assembly enacted the law using language which intentionally preserved the felony trap for civilians that is created when public parks are used by schools.

Accordingly, the Tennessee Firearms Association urges anyone having a handgun carry permit who desires to possess a handgun in a public park in Tennessee to exercise caution in doing so because of the risk that such possession may still result in felony criminal charges, including possible arrest.

The Tennessee Firearms Association was founded in 1995 and formed to defend the right to keep and bear arms. The TFA is Tennessee’s only no-compromise gun group.