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'Guns in parks' bill worries local officials

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Local mayors just got back from a mayors' conference in Nashville where the main buzz was the proposed "guns in parks" bill now being considered by the Tennessee legislature.

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, who attended the conference, said the bill has a provision prohibiting guns if schools are using the parks. But he said if it passes, it may still affect local school activities at parks.

Hutto also recently told the Public Works Committee of the Wilson County Commission that the county was far-sighted to build athletic fields next to county schools, rather than holding games at county parks.

It's true that other county school districts may have more problems than Wilson could, according to Wilson County Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright, but Wilson still may face some difficulties.

Fewer trips to Ag Center?
"It doesn't affect us as much as it does counties like Williamson where they have schools that back up to parks," Wright said, but she added, "I don't understand why the legislature wants to allow guns in parks."

Wright also said if the bill becomes law, it could cause problems about where schools will allow students to go for events.

"I'm really concerned about the impact on our children," she said. "We are going to have to be very critical about the value of an event before we allow students to participate, especially with public venues like the Ag Center."

Ward Agriculture Center Director Larry Tomlinson also expressed concerns. "It's a bad piece of legislation," said Tomlinson, who is also chairman of the Wilson County School Board and represents Zone 5 on the board. "It would adversely affect the Ag Center since we have lots of school events there."

Tomlinson also said he isn't so concerned about the actual concealed-carry permit holders. "They are basically law-abiding citizens," he commented, "but it's all the others that will use this as a way to get guns into the parks."

Beavers: 'Reconcile laws'
State Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet (R-17) said she is for the new bill, but thinks the existing gun laws need to be reviewed.

"If you can legally own a gun, you ought to be able to carry it," she said. "But we need to go through all the gun laws and reconcile them to eliminate confusion."

At this point, the law is on its way back to the State Senate. First the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a version which would allow guns in parks, then the Senate passed an amended version which would allow them in the State Capitol Complex as well.

When that version went back to the House, the amendment was stripped out and now it will return to the Senate, where senators are saying they will probably need a special committee to develop a version to meet the requirements of both houses.

The full Senate is expected to bring the bill up again for consideration on Monday next week. Federal law prohibits firearms on school property and at school events, however, so even if the bill passes and Gov. Bill Haslam signs it, when school events are held in parks, no gunscould be brought "near the event."

Impact on Don Fox Park?
Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead, who also attended the mayor's conference in Nashville, said he thinks the federal law means people can't be in the park with guns while school events are going on.

"If they are noticed with a gun, they must walk away," he said. "Lebanon Special School District (LSSD) uses Don Fox Park quite often, and the new walking trails will tie into the schools as well."

But LSSD Director of Schools Scott Benson doesn't think the new law will be a problem for the schools in his district.

"I don't think it will have any direct effect on us," he said. "All of our activities are on campus, but I am aware other schools would be affected."

'It only takes one hothead'

Watertown Mayor Mike Jennings also said he is concerned about the effects on softball and Little League games in Watertown's parks.

"We have ball games with teenage umpires, and some of the parents get pretty upset about the calls sometimes," he said. "Most permit holders are responsible adults and I support the Second Amendment, but I don't think it's a good idea to have guns in that situation."

Jennings said he believes most people would never let it go beyond being upset and yelling, "but all it would take is one."

Wright agreed, "It only takes one hothead acting out to create a disaster."

Then Jennings changed hats and said as county attorney, he also has some concerns. "I'm concerned about what effect it would have on our liability insurance," he commented.

Since the county and cities are responsible for both park employees and people who use the parks, guns in parks could create a liability problem, Jennings pointed out.

'No problems' in MJ parks

However, Mt. Juliet Parks Director Rocky Lee says the new law won't change anything in Mt. Juliet. "We have been allowing guns in parks here for three years," he said. "There have been no problems. I'm a big proponent of it."

Lee added that the city does put up signs when the schools have events at a park.

Mt. Juliet Mayor Ed Hagerty agreed with Lee that allowing guns in Mt. Juliet parks has gone smoothly. "We opted in when it first came up, and we have never had any problems," Hagerty said. "You can put up a sign that says 'No guns,' but only law-abiding citizens will obey it. The criminal isn't going to put his gun back in the car."

Lebanon Parks Director William Porter said he isn't sure if people would be able to tell the difference.

"If they pass it, it's for concealed carry, so you'd never know," he said. Porter also said the city parks are seldom used for school sports since all of the schools have their own playing fields.

'Leave it up to locals'
Former Wilson County Sheriff and District 12 County Commissioner Terry Ashe has been following the law for some time in his role as the executive director of the Tennessee Sheriff's Association. He said that while he is a firm supporter of Second Amendment rights, he also thinks guns in parks should be treated as a local issue.

"These decisions are best left to county and city government," Ashe said. "It's not a 'one size fits all' situation. What works in Memphis may not work in Bristol. We look for our citizen legislators to make good decisions for us."

Ashe pointed out that the people best equipped to know what works in a particular community are those who live there. "This is about public safety," he said. "The best government in this issue is those closest to the people."

He said that after 40 years in law enforcement, he thinks local government should have a say in local issues.

"The state legislature says it doesn't want Washington telling them what to do," Ashe commented. "Well, I'm saying we don't want state government telling us what to do. In fact, I think we should put it to a referendum. Let the people decide."

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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