New law could allow it, but it’s discouraged by fair officials
A new state law that allows people to carry guns in public parks that went into effect last month has Wilson County’s top law enforcement officials concerned about its impact on the Wilson County Fair.
The law Gov. Bill Haslam signed in April cancels out any bans on guns in public parks. People with a concealed-carry permit can take a gun inside a private concert or event, even if event organizers wish to prohibit firearms.
That’s the conclusion of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who issued an opinion recently at the request of state Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis. Harris opposed the initial legislation making the practice legal.
According to Slatery’s opinion, since Wilson County owns the James E. Ward Agricultural Center and Wilson County Fairgrounds, it’s defined as a public park.
“The property retains its status as a public park, and the nonprofit corporation that contracts with a county or municipal government to operate a park, playground, civic center or other facility owned by the county or municipality may not prohibit holders of valid handgun carry permits from possessing handguns on the premises,” Slatery said in his opinion.
A meeting is scheduled for Thursday to discuss the issue. It’s expected to include District Attorney Tommy Thompson, county attorney Mike Jennings, several representatives from Lebanon and Wilson County law enforcement agencies charged with fair security, along with fair officials.
“I will abide by the law, but I think it’s not a good example for anything,” Thompson said. “Nothing will be gained from it. I know that’s not what the law says, but I don’t make the laws. I’m a gun owner myself, but I think there’s a time and a place for everything.
“We’ve had murder cases with people who had gun permits. It’s difficult to check everybody, and it puts an officer in a difficult position.”
Wilson County Fair director Helen McPeak said “No Guns Allowed” signs would stay in place regardless of the outcome of the meeting and the law’s interpretation.
“We are still going to be having our signs up that say ‘no guns,’” McPeak said. “We have to do what law enforcement tells us that we have to do.
“This is supposed to be fun family entertainment, so we are discouraging anyone from bringing a gun. But we will abide by the law. We just want everyone to have a good time. “
Jennings said he wouldn’t comment on the issue “at this time.”
Sheriff Robert Bryan, who provides deputies for fair security each year, agreed with Thompson on the law.
“We have to go by what state law says,” Bryan said. “As far as what we’ll be enforcing is according to state law, but we’ll be getting interpretation from the DA’s office and our county attorney. We don’t set the laws. We just enforce them.
“Do I agree with the law in certain places? No I do not. But we don’t set the laws.”
Bryan said the change in state law has since brought quite a bit of confusion on how to interpret it.
“Prior to this most recent legislation, it was posted firearms weren’t allowed,” Bryan said. “There wasn’t a problem. We never had this conversation until this year.
“We’ve got a really good gun permit law in this state, probably one of the best. But let’s be responsible about where we carry them.”
Lebanon Public Safety director Mike Justice, who also provides manpower for security at the fair, said he’s also ready to get some clarity.
“We are absolutely going to do what the DA says, and I speak for the Fair Board, too,” Justice said. “In research I have done and speaking with the county attorney, it appears we’re going to do exactly what the law says.”
Justice said he understands both sides of the argument.
“There are kind of two sides to it,” he said. “You would think the fair is a good place to go where you wouldn’t need a weapon. But you don’t want to violate anyone’s rights. There are pros on both sides and probably cons on both sides.
“Law enforcement can’t be everywhere all the time. You don’t want to take away any person’s right to defend themselves if they need to.”
Last week, The Tennessean reported a ban on weapons at the Williamson County Fair could stay in place, despite a recent opinion about a controversial new law by the Tennessee Attorney General that has sparked debate over which public facilities can bar handgun carry permit holders from bringing in guns, the county’s attorney said.
Williamson County Attorney Bobby Cook wrote in a statement to The Tennessean that the nonprofit Williamson County Fair Association could prohibit guns at the event, essentially because he believes the law doesn’t apply to the Williamson County Agricultural Exposition Park, where the fair kicked off Friday night.
James Bolden began his career in Memphis law enforcement in 1968, and retired as Memphis police director in 2004. He had concern over the impact the legislation could have on the safety of citizens and police officers.
“You could have as many as 500 individuals armed and you not know it, because we have no way of knowing who the good guys are or who the bad guys are,” Bolden said.
Harris said the attorney general’s opinion helps solidify the law’s intent, but also underscores how important it is to pass new legislation that would restore some rights at the local level.
“The legislature’s actions here are clear and unambiguous,” said Harris. “They intended to remove from the counties and municipalities the option to prohibit holders of handgun carry permits from possessing and carrying their guns in these local parks.”
The Wilson County Fair starts Friday and will run through Aug. 24. The largest county fair in the state, it’s expected to draw more than 500,000 people during the nine days.