A lawsuit revolving around whether people with gun permits should be allowed to openly carry firearms into the Atlanta Botanical Garden could have sweeping implications for other favorite attractions across Georgia.
Revived by the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday, the lawsuit — brought by Phillip Evans and the gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org — argues gun owners should be allowed to carry firearms to the privately owned Botanical Garden because it sits on city-owned land. Currently, Georgia law allows private businesses to ban firearms on their property, but people can carry guns in many publicly owned facilities, such as Stone Mountain and other state parks and in the airport outside of security checkpoints.
But if Evans and GeorgiaCarry.org ultimately win the case, it could let gun owners with carry permits bring guns when they visit businesses that are privately owned but operate on public land that is leased from a city, a county or the state. Think the College Football Hall of Fame or sporting venues, such as Turner Field and the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.
“It scares me for the reason … that they could attempt to expand this into other places,” said Marvin Lim, an attorney for the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, adding that he believes the “law is on our side.”
John Monroe, the lawyer for GeorgiaCarry.org, said Evans simply wanted to have his firearm at the ready should he need to protect his wife and two children during the visit to the garden.
“Crime happens everywhere,” Monroe said. “People say, ‘Why do you need a gun in church?’ But if you Google church you see there are a bunch of church shootings.”
The public v. private debate
The case began in October 2014 when Evans wore his holstered gun during two family trips — a week apart — to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
According to court filings, Evans, with his family, walked around the garden for about three hours with his gun openly strapped to his side on Oct. 5, 2014. The complaint said no one stopped him or complained about it that time.
After buying a yearly pass to the garden, the Evans family returned Oct. 12, 2014. It was on that second visit to the 30-acre attraction adjacent to Piedmont Park that the police were called and Evans was told he could not be armed while walking through the Botanical Garden, a private entity.
Evans, who lives in Gwinnett County, did not respond to a request for comment.
Georgia law allows firearms in public spaces except for those specifically exempted, such as jails, courthouses and government buildings where a certified law enforcement officer provides security at entrances.
In its ruling Monday, Georgia’s highest court said that last May a Fulton county judge cited the wrong reason for dismissing the initial complaint brought by Evans and the gun rights group. The court, however, did not rule on the underlying issue of whether permitted gun owners should be allowed to bring their weapons while visiting private institutions that reside on publicly-owned land. The suit now heads back to Fulton County Superior Court.
Mary Pat Matheson, president and chief executive officer at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, said in an email that while the Supreme Court’s decision Monday was disappointing, “We remain confident that the garden will prevail in its effort to protect its private property rights. Our priority is the safety of the hundreds of thousands of children and adults who visit us as a place to enjoy the peace and serenity of nature.”
‘It’s over the top’
Whether a ruling in favor of Evans and GeorgiaCarry on the Atlanta Botanical Garden case could have far-reaching effects on other venues remains unclear.
Georgia State University law professor Lynn Hogue said that the contention is a “stretch” and the whole issue is based on real estate law, not gun statutes.
“Nothing that’s happened so far is ground breaking,” Hogue said. But, he continued, “there are some important questions for the trial court to resolve.”
Still, advocates for strictor gun laws remain worried.
“It’s absurd,” said Kathryn Grant, the Southeast regional director of the Campaign to keep Guns Off Campus, which is also now focusing on other gun issues.
She said the scenario Evans set up was no different from last June when Jim Cooley openly carried an assault rifle in areas before security check points at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In that instance, a police officer asked him some questions but nothing more was done because Cooley was not breaking the law.
“He was in essence challenging police to respond to him,” Grant said of Cooley. “Why would anyone feel the need to walk into an airport with an assault-style weapon. It’s equally absurd … to walk into the gardens and see someone with a gun.”
Meanwhile, Monroe, the GeorgiaCarry attorney, said Evans was not trying to create an opportunity for a confrontation.
“Mr. Evans was just carrying a gun in a holster in his waistband,” he said.