Judge rules Atlanta Botanical Garden can forbid guns

The “peace and serenity” of the Atlanta Botanical Garden may not be disturbed by people packing pistols, a Fulton County judge ruled Thursday.

"This has been an interesting case," Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan said of the argument advanced by GeorgiaCarry.org. The organization sued on behalf of a Gwinnett County man, Phillip Evans, who was barred from taking a gun into the garden. The suit asserted that, even though the garden is privately operated, it sits on public property leased from the city of Atlanta and is therefore subject to the state's open-carry law.

Tusan dismissed the lawsuit, brought almost two years ago, but it is unlikely she will have the last word on the matter.

John Monroe, the attorney for GeorgiaCarry.org and Evans, said he would talk with his client about appealing Tusan’s ruling. “We respect the court’s ruling,” but it was wrong, Monroe said.

Mary Pat Matheson, Atlanta Botanical Garden president and chief executive officer, is happy with Tusan’s ruling.

“Throughout this case, the garden’s priority has been and will continue to be the safety of the hundreds of thousands of children and adults who visit it as a place to enjoy the peace and serenity of nature,” Matheson said in an email.

The matter has already been appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, but it came back to Tusan last spring when the justices determined that she had used the wrong reason to dismiss Evans' suit. The first time Tusan ruled on the lawsuit, the judge said she could not pre-empt the garden from seeking criminal charges against someone for carrying a weapon, even someone who is licensed.

On Thursday, Tusan ruled that while the Botanical Garden sits on land owned by the city, it remains “private property with the right to restrict anyone with a … gun on its property.”

The case began in August 2014, when Evans called the Botanical Garden to ask about the policy concerning weapons, according to the suit.

Monroe said Evans had questions because a month earlier a new Georgia law expanded the list of places guns were allowed to include almost everywhere the public could go with some exceptions — courthouses, jails and and government buildings that have certified peace officers screening people as they come in. Guns are allowed at publicly-owned facilities like Stone Mountain, state parks and in the airport outside of security checkpoints.

Evans sent Jason Diem, a member of the gardens’ management team, two emails to confirm what he had told Evans during their phone conversation.

“The garden’s policy is no weapons except as permitted by law,” Diem responded, according to the suit.

Monroe said Evans took that to mean that people licensed to carry guns could bring their weapons to the gardens. Monroe said Evans only wanted to have his firearm at the ready should he need to protect his wife and two children while they were there.

“If you want to regulate guns on your property, you need to buy it or least it form a private entity,” Monroe argued in court.

Evans and his family first visited the garden on Oct. 5, 2014, and no one said anything about the handgun he openly carried in a holster, he has said.

Botanical Garden officials called the police when the family came back a week later; Evans had a holster gun on his hip. Officers told Evans he could not have a gun while at the Botanical Garden and if he insisted on being armed he could be arrested.