Atlanta city officials had two concerns as they prepared for the first New Year's Eve Peach Drop at Woodruff Park.
First, it was going to be bone-chillingly cold. Second, the event was a soft target — an attractive venue for terrorists, foreign and domestic.
As a result, officials told revelers to bundle up and abide by security restrictions. Attendees were subject to search and all bags had to be clear plastic.
"Other prohibited items include: Chairs, coolers, firearms, umbrellas, drones, pets, bicycles, hoverboards and skateboards," the police department announced in a press release posted on its social media accounts.
The firearms prohibition drew the attention of Phillip Evans, a pro-gun activist and blogger in Snellville.
“As soon as I heard that the Peach Drop was going to be in Woodruff Park, I was curious how they were going to handle weapons,” he said. “Basically they were saying no guns allowed.”
When Evans saw firearms among the restricted items, he started peppering APD with questions. In short order, firearms disappeared from the city’s list of prohibited items, but police officials stopped short of clarifying whether people with carry permits could attend armed.
When asked about guns in a local TV interview, Deputy Chief Scott Kreher tossed the ball to Live Nation, which was providing the entertainment and had the concessions at the event.
“This is a permitted event by Live Nation, so any time you have a permit issued by the city you are required to follow all state and local laws, so we expect them to do the same,” he said.
The reporter pressed: So, can people bring their handguns?
“That’s up to Live Nation,” he said. “It’s their event and we’ll certainly follow whatever guidelines they have in their permit.”
Wait. Which is it? Does Live Nation have to abide by state law, which does not prohibit guns in city parks? Or can they set whatever rules they want and expect APD to enforce them?
There are a couple of state laws in play here. One law lists prohibited areas where guns are not allowed (government buildings, for example). Parks are not on the list.
The other law is known as a “preemption law” and holds that local governments cannot pass local gun laws stricter than state law.
Evans is familiar with the issue. He sued Gwinnett County schools over his desire to carry a gun onto the campus of a Snellville elementary school. He lost that one when the Georgia Supreme Court decided in 2016 that state law allows guns on school property only when picking up or dropping off children.
Currently he's suing the Atlanta Botanical Garden over its no-gun policy, arguing that while the garden is a private entity, it sits on public land.
Suing the city isn’t an option for Evans. He didn’t go to the Peach Drop, so he is not an injured party, but he and other advocates were soliciting in advance for people who were stopped from bringing their handguns into the event.
At least one person claimed to have attended armed.
“Came through with my Beretta Pico concealed in my waistband,” claimed an anonymous poster on GeorgiaPacking.org. “Not sure if the wands were even on.”
Cities ‘in a terrible position’
Like many ardent pro-gun activists, Evans believes people are safer when armed. The Atlanta Police endangered folks by initially saying that guns weren’t allowed and then merely implying it, he said.
"If (citizens) are traveling unarmed in the city, that's a danger to them and their families," he said. "Especially in downtown Atlanta."
Georgia has permissive gun laws favoring law-abiding people who want their shooting irons with them wherever they go. In fact, lots of states have these kinds of laws and lots of cities hate them.
“I see it a lot where cities would like to push back on it, but they are put in a terrible position,” said Laura Cutilletta, legal director for Giffords Law Center, a pro-gun control group that advocates for tougher gun laws. “State legislatures put these laws into effect and give cities no solutions.”
When it comes to packing in parks, Atlanta doesn’t have the legal authority to say no, she said. But there is an exception in cases where the property has been leased for a private event, she said.
“If you are in legal control of the property you can prohibit guns, even if you are on public property.”
Was that the case on New Year’s Eve? Evans requested contracts and other documents related to the event and the result is less than conclusive. Live Nation and the City of Atlanta appear to be much more like mutual partners in staging the Peach Drop. If that lessor-lessee relationship was clear, it seems like the city would say so, but Atlanta officials have failed to clarify.
I asked to APD spokesman Carlos Campos to chat about the issue. I sent emails and left voice mails on his office and cell phones.
I never got a call, but after a couple of days I did get an email with an official statement: “Public events such as the Peach Drop in parks and similar venues are permitted in accordance with the City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances, and the organizers are subject to the laws of the State of Georgia and the ordinances of the City of Atlanta.”
Essentially, that’s the same thing the deputy chief said: Everybody has to comply with the law, whatever the law is.
Sowing confusion instead of leading
Campos spent nearly 14 years as a reporter and editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before leaving for work in public relations. He knows what he is doing, and he was clear with me that the city wasn’t likely to say more.
City officials are worried about the mixture of guns and large public events. Earlier this month, police pleaded with folks to leave their guns at home when attending the college football National Championship.
Guns weren't allowed inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium even before the president of the United States announced his plans to attend the game, but police were concerned about guns left in parked cars.
“We cannot have folks continuing to bring guns and leaving them in their cars,” Police Chief Erika Shields said.
The chief has facts to back up her plea. Guns are stolen by the hundreds from cars all around the metro Atlanta region. Police are so concerned about the presumed nexus between those thefts and a rise in gun violence they recorded a PSA to educate gun owners on proper storage of their firearms.
APD didn’t prohibit people from storing guns in cars, no matter how unwise it may be. That’s because state law allows it.
That’s how this works.
If the General Assembly wants to put revolvers in playpens, the state’s municipal leaders cannot say otherwise. That’s the rule of law. If they want the law changed, they can elect different people or work the legislative process with the people you have. It can be done.
People – voters, think tanks, activist groups – can (and do) protest. They can march, they can write position papers, they can even stay away from events like the Peach Drop and make it known why. Governments, however, should have some inherent respect for the law.
If Atlanta officials believe, because of Live Nation’s involvement in the event, they have a legal right to forbid firearms, then they should unequivocally assert that right. But their mush-mouthed statements suggest they don’t believe they have that right at all, and sowing confusion isn’t leadership.