Governor Bill Haslam signed the “parks” bill. Some organizations are claiming it a victory for Tennessee’s gun owners.
Is it really? The answer lies in the details – and what has been hidden in the language.
TFA evaluates gun legislation on a simple premise – the constitutional limits of government action. In that regard, any law should be sufficiently simple and clear that a citizen, a law enforcement officer, a district attorney, a judge and all 12 members of the jury should easily and independently come to the same conclusion concerning what conduct the law authorizes or would punish as criminal. If a law does not do that, it is not a good law.
TFA has sought a solution to the problem of inconsistent local regulation of parks for many years. This also required that the school grounds/parks issue be addressed. Acceptable legislation would have simply done 2 things. First, make all public parks open to those who are legally in possession of the firearm, period – no exceptions. Second, it is necessary to delete the language in current law that lets all parks (and for that matter other property — including your home) be classified as “school grounds” if the property is “used” by a school.
That is not what happened this year.
Instead, the 2015 “parks” law generally removes local control over local parks. However, it preserved and perhaps worsened the school grounds “used” issue so that any park that is used by a school automatically morphs into a prohibited property. That school grounds morphing can result in a Class E felony conviction if a permit holder is in the park and knew or should have known that a school was using “the property.”
The new law is neither simple nor clear. The new law, because it perpetuates the school grounds “morphing” issue, extends the potential for traps and confusion. It may even be so vague that it could be subject to a constitutional challenge on “vagueness” grounds just like the fatally flawed 2009 “restaurant” law.
Here are some examples of concerns that TFA has with the 2015 “parks” law:
1. The law states that it applies to handgun permit holders “while within or on a public park …. or similar public place”.
- Does the law regulate public roads, including state routes, that pass through parks, forests, etc. while in use by a school?
- What is meant by the phrase “similar public place”?
- Would this language allow a permit holder to carry into the buildings and structures in a public park such as pavilions, restrooms, bathhouses, restaurants, etc? What if a school is using one of the other nearby buildings or structures such as the next pavilion?
2. The law also creates an exception for permit holders carrying in a park but makes it a Class E felony for any permit holder who “[p]ossessed a handgun in the immediate vicinity of property that was, at the time of possession, in use by [the school].
- Does the phrase “of property” refer to the entire park or only portions of the park that are actively being used by the school?
- If it only applies to portions of the park, how are those portions marked or identified so that the boundaries are clear?
- If the phrase “of property” refers to only portions of a park and not the entire park, how is a permit holder, police officer, or judge supposed to know whether a specific location is too close and thus in the “immediate vicinity” so that felony charges can be brought?
- How would the phrase “immediate vicinity” apply in parks where there are large areas set aside for golf courses, running trails, hiking trails or other large activities that might have school grounds in attendance such as will be the case at Iroquois Steeplechase?
- Is it a “school” activity if the group is a recognized student organization such as a club, fraternity or sorority?
- Is the “immediate vicinity” determined by where the school related individuals are located or by the entire golf course, for example, without regard to where the players are on the course?
3. How does this new “parks” and “school” language relate to TCA 39-17-1313 which allows handgun permit holders to have and store their handguns in parked vehicles on school grounds? What if the vehicle is parked in the “immediate vicinity” of the school event, such as at a baseball field, in the park?
Governor Haslam wrote in his letter to the Legislature about his concern for “operational challenges” that this new law clearly presents. In that limited context, TFA may agree with the Governor that the new law creates problems that are so severe that there may be constitutional challenges because of its vagueness in defining what conduct is permissible and what conduct may result in serious criminal charges.
Ultimately, however, it is also sadly clear from the Governor’s letter that he holds a belief relative to civilian possession of firearms which opinion is based on factors not supported by decades of crime data and he expressed an opinion that clearly is unsustainable under Article I, Section 26 of the Tennessee Constitution and the 2nd Amendment.
TFA seeks constitutionally sound laws that are easy for any adult to understand. This is not a characteristic of what the legislature passed and the Governor signed.
Tennesseans deserve better. Are you willing to demand better?