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Atlanta Botanical Garden wins right to ban guns from its property

A handgun. (Photo by Thomas Def via Unsplash.)

By John Ruch

The Atlanta Botanical Garden has won the right to ban guns from its property after an eight-year court battle with the advocacy group GA2A.

The Jan. 31 Georgia Court of Appeals decision comes as the state just allowed permit-less toting of concealed firearms — so-called Constitutional carry. It highlights what advocates on both sides have said is the pressing issue of where those guns can be carried. One question is whether it will dampen challenges to bans on similar City-owned properties.

Mary Pat Matheson, the Garden’s president and CEO, said in a written statement that the organization will “continue to operate as a gun-free zone” thanks to the decision.

“We believe this was the right decision for all, and the Garden will remain gun-free,” she said. “To be clear, the Garden is neither anti-gun nor pro-gun, but pro-Garden. We celebrate families and children, and create incredible experiences for the hundreds of thousands of guests who visit the Garden annually.”

The case began in 2014 when the Garden, located in Midtown’s Piedmont Park, kicked out Monroe County resident Phillip Evans for carrying a handgun on his waistband. Evans and GA2A — then known as GeorgiaCarry.org — soon sued. While private property owners and tenants generally can ban guns, public entities cannot. The Garden leases its land from the City of Atlanta, and the plaintiffs argued it thus lacked the ability to ban guns.

After years of legal battling, including two trips to the Supreme Court of Georgia, that generally favored the Garden, the controversy finally boiled down to one issue — whether the Garden’s lease was a type that allowed the gun ban. The Court of Appeals decision affirms that the Garden’s lease is indeed the type that gives them private property rights, thus “allowing the Garden to exclude weapons.”

Evans’ attorney, John Monroe, said he would not appeal further, meaning that the Court of Appeals’ decision is final. It does leave some wiggle room, though, for other legal questions raised by the debate.

The City leases other property to major institutions, such as the amphitheaters operated by concert promoter Live Nation at Chastain Park and Lakewood. Evans, who carried the gun at the Garden deliberately to challenge its ban, has said he is considering doing the same at the amphitheater. The court decision about the details of the Garden’s lease does not automatically apply to those other properties, where the individual lease details could be a different issue.

Evans declined to comment about the Garden decision, adding, “I’ll have to see what develops with the Chastain situation” when asked about the possible challenge.

Another question is whether the type of lease the Garden is affirmed to have puts it on the hook for what would be a whopping property tax bill. The Garden, a nonprofit organization, has said it has a statutory tax exemption. The plaintiffs argued the exemption was improperly granted and violates the Georgia Constitution, using that as part of their argument about the nature and intent of the lease. The court said that for the purposes of its ruling on the core issue about the lease, the question of exemption procedure was irrelevant and the constitutional claim unproven.

Asked whether the Garden has moved to clarify the exemption or has heard from any taxing authority about it, spokesperson Danny Flanders noted that tax liability was not the direct legal issue in the lawsuit and said “it is not an issue now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an incorrect reference to the lawsuit being a federal, rather than state, court case.

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