Decatur officials on Monday said state law prevents them from banning guns at the Point Mallard water park, a law the mayor said he would like to see changed after a Saturday night shooting that left two people injured and has resulted in a teenager's arrest.
The victims sustained minor injuries in the shooting, police said, and were treated and released from the hospital. The shooting came at 9:08 p.m., near the conclusion of a “Splash into Summer” event that began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted until 9:30 p.m. The event featured reduced $5 admission, fireworks and music. The park usually closes at 6 p.m.
“I just went and visited with our legal director, and state law does prohibit us from putting a sign up (banning guns at the water park),” Mayor Tab Bowling said Monday morning. “That means that we would have to do that as a legislative act.”
He said he may contact legislators to change the law, which was passed in 2013.
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 the 2013 law. The city removed the signs voluntarily, rather than awaiting a ruling by the Alabama attorney general.
“I had signs up and I had to take them down,” Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake said Monday. “We had signs up and our Legal Department told us we were not able to do that.”
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."
City Attorney Herman Marks said those requirements could be a problem at the water park.
"The decision has to be made as to logistics at Point Mallard, as far as putting guards at each entrance, metal detectors," Marks said. "It's very disappointing that we can't regulate our parks more than we can. But we'll go back and review it further."
Point Mallard had two more night-swim events with fireworks planned for the summer, but Park Superintendent Stephanie McLain said the events — planned for July 6 and Aug. 4 — have been canceled due to security concerns after Saturday’s shooting.
A suspect in the shooting, 18-year-old Caleb Jones of Decatur, previously identified by police as Caleb D'Vante Long, turned himself in to police Monday and was booked into the Morgan County Jail on two felony charges of second-degree assault. His bond was set at $60,000.
The shooting took place on the east side of the park, near the wave pool. Entrances to the park were closed about 8:30 p.m., Lake said, an hour before the water park closed. The entrances were blocked not due to the total number of people at the park, which he said was lower than the previous Saturday, but because people were clustering on walkways rather than dispersing through the park.
Lake said there were 5,269 people counted entering the water park prior to the incident. He said seven police officers were inside the park.
Several people climbed a fence on the west side of the park to gain admission after the gates were closed, Lake said, and he stationed employees along the fence.
Bowling said police began blocking roads entering the park at about 8:30.
Many who were at the park questioned the decision to proceed with the planned fireworks show shortly after the shooting.
"That was not a good call. It added to the panic. I've been around guns all my life so I know the difference (between the sounds of gunshots and fireworks), but it really added to the panic for many people," said Connie Bunker of Decatur, who was there with her daughter and grandchildren.
Lake, who was at the water park that night, said the fireworks began about five minutes after the shooting.
“There was miscommunication on the fireworks,” he said. “When I showed up, they were not saying that was a shooting. The people I got information from were saying that was fireworks or balloons popping, and I believed it because I was close enough to the location that it didn’t sound to me like a gunshot. Actually I went out to (to check on an ambulance coming in) before I heard from the police that there was a shooting.”
Bunker said the reaction to the shooting was immediate and chaotic.
"It was instant panic. People were running over each other," she said.
Lake disputed the characterization, and said many people stayed to watch the fireworks. He said he was aware of one injury taking place after the shooting incident involving a woman just outside the front entrance.
"There was a lady that had a defibrillator that had issues. Decatur Fire worked with her and she was transported," Lake said.
Bowling said the incident Saturday, and high attendance at the evening event, made it clear such events can only be held if precautions are taken similar to those used for the Alabama Jubilee on Memorial Day weekend. That would need to include traffic cones, traffic-control signage, and mobile fire and police units, he said.
“But it’s unlikely that we could afford to have an event like that, to put all that infrastructure in, so I don’t foresee us having a $5 event, because it wouldn’t be profitable,” Bowling said.
Other changes at the park also are possible, Lake said.
“What we have talked about, and are going to talk about more in the coming weeks, is what we can do to make sure this don’t happen again,” he said. He said he will be working with law enforcement and the mayor’s office.
“Do we need to start checking bags? Start having clear bags? One of the things I do want people to know is we’re listening,” Lake said. “Everything is on the table right now.”
He said until changes are implemented, there will be a larger police presence at the park.
Lake said the attendance Saturday night was in the range he was expecting. The park had 75 employees present. Bowling said the city is offering counseling to the employees, many of whom are teenagers.
“I take this very personally," Lake said. "My wife was there. My children swim there. We’re going to do what we need to do to take care of this.
“It’s our job to take the information we got from this weekend, to listen to people and what they’re telling us, and to put things in place to make sure that is the safest place. That’s on us, and we take that responsibility.”