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

By John Ruch

An apparently new weapons ban at Zoo Atlanta is being challenged by the gun activist whose legal complaints may have ended the Music Midtown concert festival this year.

In an Oct. 20 blog post, Phillip Evans noted that the zoo appears to have recently changed the rules posted on its website, which once allowed legally permitted weapons but now bans “weapons of all types.”

Zoo spokesperson Rachel Davis confirmed the policy was updated on Sept. 1 and bans firearms and weapons of all types unless the carrier is a member of law enforcement. She said the firearms part of the ban is based on OCGA 16-11-127, the part of Georgia law that gives such ability to private property tenants.

Evans says a zoo official told him the policy change is based on the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s victory — over Evans himself — in a court battle on the right to ban guns in public parks. The core issue is that guns generally can be banned on private property but not on public property — a sometimes tricky situation to determine when a private organization operates in a public park.

However, Evans believes the zoo does not have the same ability to ban guns. The Garden won because it has a type of long-term lease called an “estate for years” that conveys various property rights. Another type of lease called a “usufruct” is usually shorter-term and/or does not convey such powers. Evans notes that the zoo is a private nonprofit — formally called Atlanta-Fulton County Zoo — but operates on City-owned land at 800 Cherokee Ave. in Grant Park and is supervised and significantly controlled by another public body, the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority (AFCRA).

That could mean the zoo has a usufruct arrangement, but that is not clear. Evans said the zoo did not respond to his question about the lease.

Davis did not state the zoo’s position on that issue, but emphasized its lease is a long-term one dating back to 1985 and most recently renewed in 2007, with a 2017 amendment. She said it is an intergovernmental agreement among the zoo, the City, Fulton County and AFCRA. She did not provide a copy of the lease.

AFCRA also did not respond to SaportaReport questions and a request for the lease. The City referred questions to AFCRA.

John Monroe, vice president of the gun rights group GA2A and an attorney who represented Evans in the Garden case, said he has not examined the zoo situation. The ability to ban guns hinges on the type of lease, he confirmed.

Evans told SaportaReport he has previously carried a gun openly at the zoo without a problem, and members of the online gun rights forum GeorgiaPacking.org reported similar experiences in recent years. In a letter to zoo officials included in his blog post, he accused them of having a “liberty-hating agenda” that prevents people from carrying guns in “a neighborhood beset with crime.”

Asked if he intended to directly challenge the zoo’s weapons ban as he did at the Garden, he said, “I want to see how entrenched they are before deciding how to proceed.”

Evans earlier this year forced the removal of a similar ban at another public-park venue, the Home Depot Backyard outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He also questioned the weapons ban policy of Music Midtown, a concert festival held in Piedmont Park. The festival on Aug. 1 abruptly announced its cancellation amid rumors that Evans’ complaints were causing some type of legal issue, though organizers would not confirm or deny that and the exact problem was unclear. The law in question gives a complaining person the right to sue, but would not immediately cancel an event.

Evans has remained on the lookout for allegedly unlawful weapons bans to test, and his complaints have not always been accurate. Another complaint about the Savannah Jazz Festival this year was based on an outdated webpage for an out-of-the-ordinary pandemic event.

The backdrop for Evans’ activism is intense controversy about Georgia’s increasingly loose gun laws combined with a widespread misunderstanding of them.

In 2014, a state law dubbed “guns everywhere” by critics broadly allowed the carrying of firearms on public land by properly permitted people, with some exceptions. A “Constitutional carry” law passed this year with Gov. Brian Kemp’s backing removed the requirement for a permit for any such gun-carrying. And while Georgia law for decades banned firearms at “public gatherings” like festivals, a 2010 reform wiped that off the books.

The 2014 expansion of gun-carrying opened the legal question of when and how the law applies to private events and institutions on publicly owned land. Broadly speaking, governments cannot ban guns from public land, while owners or tenants can ban guns from private property.

That same year, Evans sought to clarify the law by deliberately challenging a gun ban at the Garden, a private institution within Piedmont Park. After a lengthy court battle, the Garden this year prevailed. The key ruling was a 2019 Supreme Court of Georgia decision in the case that distinguished the gun banning abilities of long-term and short-term private tenants on public land – the issue of the “estate for years” versus a usufruct.

In short, while Evans lost the right to carry guns in the Garden, he and other gun owners gained grounds for challenging firearms bans in public parks for short-term events or tenants that lack significant private property rights.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from Zoo Atlanta.

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