Firing Off The Question--Can someone bring a gun into a park?
By Matt DiCianni
If you turn on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, you will probably find one of their talking heads ranting about gun laws from both sides since the issue produces sharp emotions. Since 2008, courts across the country, including the Supreme Court, have reduced many prohibitions on gun possession. The overhaul started when the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller. In this case, the court held for the first time that each person has the right to keep a handgun in his or her house for self-defense. This overturned a long line of cases holding the Second Amendment to provide rights to militias, and not individuals. In 2010 the Supreme Court continued its expansion of gun rights in McDonald v. City of Chicago, which, in invalidating Chicago’s handgun ban, held that states and local governments could not prohibit a citizen from possessing a handgun in his or her home.
Decisions by other courts have further broadened gun rights. United States v. Chester, United States v. Reese, and United States v. Marzzarella held that in most cases governments are forbidden from outright restrictions on carrying guns. In Moore v. Madigan, the court found Illinois’s law prohibiting concealed carry to violate the Second Amendment. The court ordered Illinois to rewrite its law to allow concealed carry, and by the end of 2013, every state allowed some form of concealed or open carry. The effect on gun ownership has been profound. Since 2012, four million more background checks for firearms were conducted than in 2008, a 25-percent increase. As the number of gun owners increases, people are bringing guns everywhere, including parks. This has prompted many local officials to ask whether this is legal.
A Stately Issue
The answer depends on the state. Gun laws vary by state, with some, like California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Massachusetts, strictly regulating guns, and others, like Utah, Alaska, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, imposing few regulations. A few states, like Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, give the local government broad authority to regulate guns, including whether to allow them into parks. Many local governments, most notably New York City, have responded by outlawing firearms entirely in public parks. Other cities, like Boston, have only allowed people with licenses granted by the police to bring guns into parks. Cities in California and Nebraska do not have the same broad authority to regulate guns, but may outlaw them in public parks. In Maryland, local governments may outlaw guns within 100 yards of a public park, although they cannot prohibit the teaching of firearm safety in a park. In Texas, municipalities may not regulate firearms in their parks, but counties may regulate them in county parks. Interestingly, Philadelphia banned handguns in public parks even though local governments are forbidden from doing so in Pennsylvania.
In most places, however, state law—not local—determines whether guns are permitted in public parks. These laws, which preempt local governments from meaningfully regulating guns, range from expressly prohibiting guns in public parks to allowing open carry in parks across the state. Illinois, with its strict gun laws, bans guns in all public parks. This law, however, has a number of exceptions, allowing someone to bring a gun into a park if he or she is merely passing through on a trail or bike path. The law also makes an exception for those with hunting licenses. Rhode Island bans guns in its public parks, although it too makes limited exceptions for hunting.
Conversely, many states in the South and Midwest give citizens broad rights to carry guns in public parks. Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Utah allow those with a concealed-carry permit to bring guns into any public park in the state, regardless of whether it is a state or local park. Indiana does as well, although it makes an exception for a park run by the Army Corps of Engineers. Oregon also allows concealed weapons into public parks, but gives local governments the discretion to determine whether to allow the open carry of guns.
Despite these varied approaches, there is some nationwide uniformity on this issue. With few exceptions, the owners of private parks anywhere in the country may decide whether to allow guns. In the vast majority of states, firearms are prohibited on school property, even if this property contains a park or playground. Also, since 2010 it has been legal to bring guns into almost every national park. While those doing so must still comply with applicable state and local firearms laws, gun laws in Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota, home of many famous national parks, are generally permissive and place few restrictions on a visitor’s ability to bring guns into their national parks. It is illegal, however, to bring a gun into a federal building in these parks, or anywhere else in the country. There are also prohibitions on discharging firearms in many parts of national parks.
In the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions, gun laws have changed significantly in many parts of the country. Many local leaders face a confusing patchwork of federal, state, and local gun laws that make it difficult to understand when and where they can prohibit guns. When faced with this confusion, before throwing up one’s hands and yelling “What the Heller,” an experienced attorney can be contacted to explain the details of gun regulation in parks in a specific state.
Matt DiCianni advises park districts, municipalities, and other local government entities about environmental law, land use and zoning, and liability minimization. DiCianni is a graduate of Notre Dame Law School, and is an associate at Ancel Glink Diamond Bush DiCianni & Krafthefer. For any questions related to this article, or any other matter involving local government or environmental law, do not hesitate to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.