Guns at Riverbend: Officials will be keeping an eye out for festivalgoers wearing firearms
Coolers. Video recorders. Outside food and beverages. There's a sizable list of items the organizers of Riverbend have strictly forbidden guests from bringing through the entrance gates.
Pets, skateboards and laser pointers are all banned. Cameras are permitted, but may be restricted in some areas. Smoking is restricted to one of seven areas scattered throughout the festival grounds.
But thanks to a bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year, there's at least one thing organizers and law enforcement can't prohibit people from bringing in: firearms.
The controversial guns-in-parks bill overrides city and county bans on permit holders bringing firearms into local parks, playgrounds and ballfields.
According to an opinion published by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery shortly after the bill became law, that includes events in the park operated by a third-party contractor that charges admission.
Slatery said this is because "a park or other facility will not lose its public character simply because access is limited or controlled either physically or by the imposition of a fee."
At Riverbend this year, as every year, when guests enter the festival they will not be patted down, but their bags will be checked by some of the more than 1,500 volunteers who are coordinated by Friends of the Festival and serve as the event's backbone.
Anyone carrying a firearm must be able to display a permit if asked by a law enforcement officer, who will be alerted by volunteers.
"We have to follow the state law, and state law permits folks who have gone through the process to carry a firearm," said Amy Morrow, marketing director for Friends of the Festival.
And when asked about firearms and alcohol served at the event, Morrow said, "People who have a permit to carry are not permitted to drink at the same time if they are carrying a weapon."
Chattanooga police Sgt. Austin Garrett, who has worked Riverbend for 17 years and has been the lead officer since 2009, said he is confident the security provided by his department, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and a private security firm hired by Friends of the Festival is more than sufficient to handle whatever challenges may arise.
Garrett was not able to disclose what number of officers will be present throughout the festival, but he said, "I can assure you there are plenty of police officers down there inside that festival. And should something happen, we have plenty in the city and the county if there was something going on, they can handle anything that arises.
"Adequate security is not based off of the number of officers alone, it is based off of strategic planning and processes set in place by law enforcement that include many levels of security and response," he added.
But some are still concerned about last year's legislation and believe the state has opened a can of worms for itself. State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said the bill was vague and poorly written from the start.
"I have a sincere safety concern with anyone being able to carry firearms in any venue where alcohol is served or where there are a lot of children and families spending time," he said concerning events like Riverbend.
"There is no reason or justifiable explanation under any circumstances for someone needing to carry a firearm at a public park or a baseball field where kids are playing little league or families are having picnics," he added.
In an effort to deal with what he saw as a bad solution to a "problem that didn't exist," Clemmons helped introduce a bill last year that would have prevented permit holders from carrying firearms into ticketed events like Riverbend. The bill failed in subcommittee.
"This law puts our law enforcement officials in a very difficult situation whereby they are required to make split-second decisions and assess the situation in real time, and it just further places them in a difficult situation," he said.
And he isn't the only public official frustrated by the law.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke declined to comment for this story, but last year he pointed out to the Times Free Press that local city and county governments had voted unanimously to prohibit guns in public parks.
"I believe people should decide what's best for their own community," Berke previously said. "This bill takes local control away from the two legislative bodies closest to the people of Chattanooga and Hamilton County."
For all the concern on the part of some, law enforcement and officials want to assure the more than 500,000 expected visitors to Riverbend this year that they shouldn't worry about permit-holders at the event.
"People that are carrying a handgun, they have to have extensive hours of training," said Megan Buell, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
"Most of the time," she said, "people that are carrying handguns are not your typical people that are going to lose their minds and start shooting up people."
Buell, as well as coordinators with Friends of the Festival, said part of the responsibility falls on other citizens and volunteers to keep a watchful eye.
"We always recommend to anyone if you see an issue that doesn't look right to report it to a police officer or one of our volunteers," said Chip Baker, the executive director of the Friends of the Festival.
And to the permit-holders who intend to carry a firearm into the festival, Garrett said the wise and responsible thing is to conceal it and let officers know that you're carrying.
"What's going to happen is you're going to get stopped every 30 feet by one of us," he said.
"You're going to get tired of getting stopped."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731.