Music Midtown weapons ban is challenged by gun rights advocate
By John Ruch
The Music Midtown concert festival’s weapons ban is being challenged by the man who just lost a legal battle for the right to carry guns at the neighboring Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Phillip Evans, a gun rights advocate from Monroe County, says state law bars the Piedmont Park festival from banning firearms because it is on public land. His loss in the Botanical Garden case, he says, would be a win against Music Midtown because the decision makes it clear that short-term tenants of a public park cannot ban guns. For now, he is not taking legal action but is demanding the weapons ban be lifted.
Music Midtown and its promoter, Live Nation, did not respond to comment requests. Neither did the City of Atlanta, which owns the park. The Piedmont Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps to fund and manage the park in collaboration with the City, has no role in permitting Music Midtown or any other gated and ticketed event, according to Conservancy President and CEO Mark Banta.
Banta said he has no “insight” on the weapons ban issue, indicating it has not come up at Conservancy events. “The Conservancy only produces a handful of fundraisers and doesn’t have separate policies from the City regarding legal determinations,” he said.
In a May 4 letter to the City Department of Law, Evans wrote, “…I’m demanding that you revoke their permit to hold the event unless they agree to follow state law and rescind this policy.”
John Monroe, board vice president at the gun rights groups GA2A and an attorney who represented Evans in the Botanical Garden case, says Evans has a case.
“Based on recent Supreme Court of Georgia precedent, Phil is correct that the Music Midtown festival cannot ban guns (or other weapons),” Monroe said in an email.
However, Monroe said, the City is likely not on the hook and Evans would have to sue the festival. “The remedy is that someone who is aggrieved by a violation is empowered to sue the violator (in this case, the festival sponsor),” said Monroe. “It’s not really the City’s obligation to “police” its permittees to make sure they follow state law.”
In 2014, Evans deliberately tested a firearms ban at the Botanical Garden, which occupies a large section of Piedmont Park. After being kicked out, he and GA2A (then known as GeorgiaCarry.org) sued. After a long and complex legal battle — including two trips to the Supreme Court of Georgia — the Botanical Garden won early this year in a decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals.
But the legal reasoning that allowed the Garden to ban guns also means that Music Midtown cannot, Evans and Monroe say. The core ruling in the legal battle came in the 2019 Georgia Supreme Court case GeorgiaCarry.org v. Atlanta Botanical Garden. The Court ruled that a private tenant on publicly owned land can ban guns only if it has a type of lease called an “estate for years,” a typically long-term deal that grants it some property rights and responsibilities, such as erecting buildings and paying property taxes. Short-term tenants in another type of lease deal known as a “usufruct” have no such private property rights and cannot ban guns, the Court ruled.
Evans eventually lost because the Court of Appeals later determined that the Garden — which has been in the park for decades and has a 50-year lease — indeed has an estate-for-years status. Music Midtown, a two-day annual festival, likely does not have that kind of deal.
“When we’re talking about a weekend permit to use a park, it is essentially always a usufruct,” says Monroe.
Guns were long banned from “public gatherings” like festivals under state law, but that provision was wiped out in a 2010 reform.
Music Midtown is scheduled to return to Piedmont Park on Sept. 17 and 18 with the rock band My Chemical Romance as the headliner.
The festival announced this year’s dates and began updating its website for the first time since fall 2021 around May 16, about two weeks after Evans and SaportaReport began asking about the weapons ban. Evans’ objections were based on the 2021 edition’s list of “allowed and prohibited” items on the festival website. Since the 2022 announcement, that page has been modified to say, “We don’t have this information available just yet,” and that the list is “subject to change.” The 2021 list is still posted for reference and includes a prohibition on “weapons or explosives of any kind.”
Evans also objects to a 2021 policy of searching festival attendees.
Evans previously said he might challenge a weapons ban at another Live Nation venue, the Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park. That venue has a long-term lease.
Earlier this year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law allowing the toting of concealed firearms without a permit — so-called Constitutional carry.