No guns in parks here, please

No guns in parks here, please

May 28th, 2009 in Opinion Times

The Legislature's inexplicable obsession for expanding gun-carry rights in Tennessee may soon force local governments to decide whether to ban or allow guns in municipal and county parks. Local officials don't have to knuckle under to the rash legislative rush to open parks to gun-toting citizens, however. When the issue arrives, they should unite to ban the presence of guns in our local parks.

The issue clearly seems to be headed our way. Both chambers of the Legislature have agreed by strong majorities to approve the guns-in-parks bill, which was sent this week to Gov. Bredesen to sign into law. The governor hasn't said whether he will sign the bill, veto it, or leave it unsigned for 10 days to become law without his signature. Yet even a veto isn't likely to stop the bill's freight-train rush into law.

It takes just a simple majority vote in both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto. The votes in both chambers in support of the guns-in-parks bill, among other gun-rights bills, were well above that margin.

Local officials can't duck

If it becomes law as expected, local officials would not be able to duck the issue. The bill provides blanket approval for licensed citizens to carry guns in state and local parks unless the local governing bodies with jurisdiction for those parks specifically enact local ordinances to ban firearms in them. Approval or denial is all-or-nothing, as well. The law wouldn't permit local officials to allow guns in some local parks, but not in others.

That first half of the law puts increased political pressure on local governing bodies to allow licensed gun-carry rights. It would have been easier politically on local governments to reject the bill if it had required them initially to approve a local option on gun-rights, rather than requiring them to enact a ban to prevent the carrying of firearms. That semantic maneuver may fuel controversy.

Given the number of local parks that go unpatrolled by police, however, that provision should give local officials good reason to enact a gun-carry ban.

Concern for the unarmed

There are simply too many small parks and greenways to patrol regularly. Allowing the open carrying of guns is bound to precipitate a heightened sense of apprehension among the majority of citizens who do not carry guns and don't expect to see other civilians carrying guns in our parks.

Further, Tennessee's experience with the state's system for approval of gun-carry permits is troubling. Gun carry permits, now held by roughly 220,000 of Tennesseans, or less than 4 percent, allow permit holders to carry handguns either visibly or concealed. Reporters for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, however, recently found that permits had been given to 1,200 felons in recent years. They also found that several permit holders had been involved recently in deadly shootings.

The Legislature's obtuse response was not to tighten gun-carry-permit rules, but to close public access to the public state records of permit holders. None of that is comforting.

In fact, both police officers and the vast majority of citizens who do not wish to carry guns should not have to wonder if any gun-carrying visitors they pass in local parks - or state parks and recreation areas, for that matter - are licensed to carry guns or balanced enough to use them responsibly.

Similar Republican-sponsored legislation inserted into the Credit Card bill-of-rights just passed by Congress, and signed by President Obama, also will allow licensed gun-carry rights in national parks and recreation areas. It reportedly has many park police officers wondering how to deal with visitors whom they may see carrying guns. If they find them in a secluded area, should they risk provoking them by asking to see their gun-carry permits? Will they endanger other people? Will they shoot or poach wildlife?

Miles of secluded trails

Those may seem more appropriate questions for expansive national parks and forests, such as the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Battlefield and the nearby Cherokee national forest. But they are broadly pertinent, as well, to visitors in occasionally isolated stretches of Harrison Bay State Park, the Riverwalk, the Brainerd Levee and the South and North Chickamauga Greenways. The miles of trails on the portion of Stringer's Ridge that is set to become a park may also seem foreboding if gun-carry rights expand.

Gun-rights advocates generally claim that gun-carry permit holders are usually responsible citizens who intend only to defend themselves from criminals, who may carry concealed weapons illegally. But that argument ignores other grounds for concern.

Raising random gun violence

Even trained police officers, studies show, are not always prepared to defend against a stealthy criminal who surprises them with a drawn weapon. And if they do shoot under duress, they may well miss their target, or be shot themselves. Certainly most ordinary citizens are not adequately trained to use guns safely under duress or surprise, and most had rather not put themselves in such a lethal situation. That's why, as a society, we have police forces.

In that perspective, providing gun-carry rights for the few who embrace such rights does little more for other citizens than add to the growing and cumulative threat of more needless, random gun violence.

Municipal and county officials here should do what state lawmakers failed to do when the embraced the National Rifle Association's agenda of expanding gun rights across the nation at the state level. They should say no to the spread of gun-carry rights in our local parks.