Public parks often serve as battlegrounds in the fight over Second Amendment rights.

As political issues go, gun control has always been explosive. Or, as Nashville and Davidson County (Tenn.) Metro Parks director Roy Wilson more tactfully puts it, "politically divisive." Just look at Wilson's home state, where the issue of gun control in parks and recreation areas ignited political firefights throughout the summer - after the state Legislature approved a bill that repealed a decades-old law preventing guns in local parks.

In March, the guns-in-parks debate went nationwide. Congress and President Barack Obama passed a credit card reform bill that included among its several riders a repeal of the ban on the concealed carry of loaded guns in national parks - a ban that has existed since the Reagan administration. The law takes effect in February, to the dismay of some parks advocates. "We hope the American public and members of Congress will have more time to understand the far-reaching repercussions of this outrageous and disturbing law that has nothing to do with credit cards and will only put park visitors at risk," Brian Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Associated Press upon the bill's ratification.

While presidential elections tend to render the more centrist candidates mum on the topic of firearms regulation - when pressed to discuss it during his 2008 campaign, President Obama often repeated the noncommittal phrase, "What works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne" - political leaders on the local level are often forced to take a stand.

The federal guns-in-parks law, for example, defers to state law, and state laws related to the carrying of guns in parks often defer to local law. In Tennessee, the repeal of the statewide ban on guns in local parks, which took effect Sept. 1, gives local governments an "opt out" clause.

Parks and recreation department directors have thus found themselves put on the spot during discussions within crowded council chambers throughout the Volunteer State. "There's been a lot of debate surrounding this particular bill," says Wilson. "It's been in the headlines, in the news and in e-mail exchanges among us here in Tennessee. We were all aware of it and knew we were going to have to deal with it in our various communities."

At the time of this writing, dozens of Tennessee communities - including Metro Nashville - were still debating the "opt out" clause. Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association executive director Candi Rawlins makes no bones about her organization's stance. "We've been dealing with this issue - opposing this legislation - for three years," she says. "Our position is: we don't believe anyone other than law enforcement officers should be carrying guns in our parks. A lot of the activities and events that occur in parks can be emotionally charged. And when a situation is emotionally charged, we don't think adding a weapon to it is a positive thing."

The organization distributed a sample resolution - devised by the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service's Municipal Technical Advisory Service - to each of Tennessee's 135 county and city governments. It references the new state law and stipulates that the governing body of a given municipality "desires to continue prohibiting the carrying of handguns in municipal parks, natural areas, historic parks, nature trails, campgrounds, forests, greenways, waterways, or other similar public places." It also suggests specifications for signage announcing the maximum state penalty (11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine) for carrying firearms on public recreation property.

That said, numerous communities throughout Tennessee have either actively decided to not opt out after some public debate, or quietly accepted the terms of the state law. "City by city, they need to make a decision," says Rawlins. "What I am encouraging them to do is get their park users involved. The users need to be the ones who are telling their local officials how they feel about this issue."

The word "safety" is used freely by people on both sides of the guns-in-parks debate. "I just felt that we needed to make a statement and say, 'Hey, if you come to Red Bank, we're going to protect our children and protect our citizens," Red Bank, Tenn., city commissioner Floy Pierce told the Chattanooga Times Free Press after she voted in a 4-1 majority to allow guns in the city's parks. East Ridge, Tenn., vice mayor Tom Card evoked his Second Amendment rights as a justification for guns-in-parks rights, including a 257-acre park featuring an expansive sports complex. "In the Constitution we have the right to bear arms," he told the Times Free Press. "The criminal can be in the park without a permit, and he pulls a pistol on me, and I don't have one. What am I supposed to do?"

People on the other side of the issue are equally adamant. "I don't know how many times I've seen spectators run up into the face of an umpire or an official just because he or she disagrees with them," says Wilson. "I've seen fights erupt in the stands. All those perpetrators need is permission to carry a gun into the parks, and the situation can get a lot worse."

Wilson also notes that many of Nashville's parks are strategically placed adjacent to school grounds and are heavily programmed for youth populations. "When I look at how many of our parks are used by our school system for athletics activities, and I look at all the programs and events that are family-oriented, I just don't think children, large crowds and firearms are a good mix," he says. "Our number-one priority is safety for the people using our facilities. Firearms and safety are not synonymous, in my opinion."

In the end, however, the opinions of parks and rec directors only go so far; it's ultimately up to the members of the governing boards to weigh the political consequences of their decision. And as Rawlins says, "Every community needs to make a decision."

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So, if people by law are prevented from being responsible for their own safety when visiting these parks, it seems reasonable to conclude that the city or county will be accepting responsibility for park visitor safety. So, in cases in which a park visitor is hurt or killed by criminal activity and the perpetrator is not caught, the city or county can be held legally liable for damages? Hello... taxpayers. Do I have that right?
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John Bates Thayer Saturday, 29 August 2009
Don't Ask! Don't Tell! C.C.W.24/7!
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So let's see if I have this right... Tennessee wants to not allow its legally authorized citizens to actively persue their Constitutional rights by carrying firearms in state parks because someone might get shot? Does that also mean there will be no cars allowed in public parks? Or campfires? Are decent citizens not going to be allowed to carry hot dog skewers as well? or marshmallow skewers? Gee- maybe they should just stay home where they have a right to defend themselves against criminals breaking in to steal, maim or kill. While they're home, perhaps they should write their local and state officials and inform them they will be paying no taxes to either entity since these concerns are actively engaged in stripping them of Constitutional rights. Useing the 'children's safety' as a central theme for protecting them is ludicrous considering all the damage caused them by McDonald's, drugs, the educational system and lack of God in their lives. Sheesh.
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"Firearms and safety are not synonymous, in my opinion." Tell that to my father. Had it not been for the gun he carries, he would not be alive today after an incident that occurred 30+ years ago. It is said that a nuclear weapon in the hands of a law-abiding citizen is safer than a steak knife in the hands of a criminal. It is also said that, where guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. These are worthy of consideration. "Gun Free" zones would be better called "Free Kill" zones. Disarming law-abiding citizens so they'll be fair game for criminals is idiotic, cruel, and moronic. It follows the current mind set that we, the People are too stupid and irresponsible to take care of ourselves and do the right thing.
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I don't feel safer with a bunch of right wing wingnuts walking around with guns strapped to their legs. No one needs a gun at a school function, in a national park, or at a political rally.
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Knowing that I may be carrying could discourage an angry parent/fan/camper from attempting to assault me. Knowing that I am not legally allowed to do so could encourage them. And the security guards are too few to prevent that.
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The mayor in Seattle just banned guns in public parks. Funny thing about Seattle, our state constitution is even more gun-friendly than the US Constitution, but Seattle politicians have never let the constitution (either one) get in the way of their policies, which we, the people, must repeal or sue to have repealed. It would be equally unconsitutional for him to say that I could not read the Bible in a public park. Read the constition. read the actual words of the document, it is very short and it is very precise.