City officials say they need a change in state law if they are to ban visitors from bringing guns into Point Mallard's water park, but a state lawmaker from Decatur said minor changes at the park would allow them to ban guns under existing law.
The city has been interested in finding a way to restrict guns at the park since a Decatur teen allegedly wounded two people with a gunshot June 1 during a crowded “Splash Into Summer” Saturday night event at the aquatic center. Recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have elevated concerns.
City Attorney Herman Marks said the city has increased security at the park “but state law prevents us from keeping guns out of the park.” He said there have been two state attorney general’s opinions that keep the city from regulating guns as it would like.
"We had signs up (prohibiting guns) for years. The AG years ago sent us a letter saying we were in violation of the law and to remove those signs, that we couldn't have a prohibition," Marks said.
The city had signs posted prohibiting firearms at the water park until about 2016, when a group calling itself Lawrence County 2nd Amendment complained, citing a 2013 law.
Mayor Tab Bowling said the city “needs some help” from the Legislature on the gun issue, especially following the state attorney general’s opinions.
Marks said the city would like to set up a similar procedure to that used at City Hall, where those entering the aquatic park would have to go through a metal detector.
“We ought to be able to control our public facilities,” Marks said.
While the 2013 law prevents the city from banning guns at some facilities, it allows such bans in a "facility to which access of unauthorized persons and prohibited articles is limited during normal hours of operation by the continuous posting of guards and the use of other security features, including ... turnstiles or other physical barriers."
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he contacted legislative lawyers after the June shooting and the publicity that followed.
"When that incident happened and the mayor or whomever said 'we can't do anything because of state law,' I called the attorney staff in Montgomery and said, 'Is this true that their hands are tied in Decatur because of state law?' The response that they gave me was if there's controlled access and they have security there at the site, then they were under the opinion that under current state law, that the city could prohibit firearms from going on the premises," Orr said Thursday.
The lawyers also advised that the city could protect itself from any ambiguity in the state law, Orr continued.
"They can take those steps and then ask for an attorney general's opinion, or ask for an attorney general's opinion before they take those steps, just to be satisfied," Orr said. "That was their recommendation. I reported that to Mayor Bowling, and that if there was any uncertainty he should just request an AG opinion, which he can do anytime."
Orr said he's willing to discuss the city's needs with local officials, but his understanding is that relatively minor changes at the park would allow the city to ban guns.
"We're looking into potential things that can be done before next season," Marks said Thursday, but declined to provide specifics.
The state attorney general has issued opinions on the issue, but not in situations where access is limited by an armed guard and other controls.
In a 2015 opinion, it advised Jasper city officials that they could not ban guns from a downtown festival, even though alcohol was served in its arts and entertainment district and some portions of the downtown were fenced off for use by private vendors.
In a 2016 opinion, the attorney general concluded that a public library could not prohibit guns.
A 2014 opinion determined that Chambers County had no general authority to ban guns from polling places, but noted that guns could be prohibited in polling places located in courthouses, schools or on private property.
Meanwhile, city officials are still looking for a legislative change.
Council President Paige Bibbee said council members plan to talk to state legislators about passing a state law, possibly a local act, that would provide this control at Point Mallard.
State Reps. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, and Parker Moore, R-Decatur, said they haven’t heard from city officials about the issue but they are willing to discuss the city’s needs.
Moore said he believes the June shooting “is an anomaly” since it’s the first time in the 49-year history of the park for an incident like this to occur.
“I know the Police Department increased patrols so the city has stepped up and done a good job making people feel safe,” Moore said.
Collins said she has been working to connect city officials with school officials experienced in school safety and crisis management to provide training for parks employees.
“This is the only thing they’ve talked to me about, but I would be happy to talk to them about their thoughts on the issue,” Collins said.
City officials also are exploring another approach to a gun ban. The city leases the park from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and they believe the fact this is federal land may provide a legal way to keep firearms out of the park.
“Maybe TVA will provide us some options,” Bowling said.
Point Mallard’s location on federal land “may be our only alternative. We’re looking into it. We plan to talk to TVA officials,” Marks said.
Guns aren't allowed on most federal properties and facilities. Marks said he's not sure if Point Mallard qualifies or not because it's under city control.
Decatur resident Kaleeb Jones, 18, was charged with two counts of second-degree assault in the June 1 shooting, which left two people with non-life-threatening injuries. He posted bond, which was revoked July 29 after his arrest on a marijuana possession charge. He was re-arrested Aug. 6 and is in the Morgan County Jail with no bond set.
Jones' lawyer, Tim Case of Florence, has filed a motion asking the court to revisit its decision to revoke his client's bond.