Live Nation’s decision to cancel the Music Midtown festival in Atlanta turned the touring industry’s attention to Georgia on Monday with questions about whether a recent change in Georgia’s gun laws could affect other events as well.
The news came amid concerns that changes to the state’s gun laws would prevent the concert promoter from banning guns at the event, industry sources tell Billboard. In recent weeks, pro-gun advocates have been emailing both company and city officials warning that decades-old weapons prohibitions could now be struck down following a 2019 Georgia Supreme Court decision.
Despite the Music Midtown cancellation, Live Nation has not dropped its policy banning guns and other weapons from its venues in the state. And, broadly, concert promoters still have the right to turn anyone away who shows up armed to a concert. If that person refuses to leave, they could potentially be charged with armed criminal trespass. In the past, individuals who have tried to show up armed at events in the state where weapons are prohibited have been detained. And there are situations in which an armed individual attempting to gain access to an event can be criminally prosecuted – like if an event takes place on a private college campus or within a school safety zone.
The guns-in-venues issue will be settled in the courtroom, not at the security entrance. For years, a legal battle — GeorgiaCarry.org, Inc. et al. v. Atlanta Botanical Gardens — has been playing out involving a Georgia man named Phillip Evans, who in 2014 attempted to bring a holstered pistol into the botanical garden and was denied entry and briefly detained before being let go. Evans sued, arguing that a 2014 law gave him and other citizens the right to carry guns into most public spaces, including bars, restaurants and churches (with the organization’s permission). He also claimed the garden didn’t have the right to ban weapons since it was located on city property and the case was twice heard by the Georgia Supreme Court. In 2019, the high court ruled that the garden’s long term leases gave the organization the power to bar firearms.
Organizations with long term “estate for years” leases of public land, like the botanical gardens, affectively operated like private property and could ban guns, the court ruled, while those with short term leases for government property – a type of contract the courts call “usufruct” — did not have the legal authority to block gun rights.
While Evans and his attorney John Monroe lost the Botanical Gardens case, they now say the 2019 ruling created a clear legal path allowing guns into festivals and could mean allowing guns into venues as well. That, they say, could pave the way for allowing citizens the right to bring guns into city-owned amphitheaters like the Live Nation-managed Lakewood Amphitheater and Cadence Bank Amphitheater.
Monroe believes that the concert venues located within city park spaces or publicly-held land likely don’t qualify for the same exemption granted to the Botanical Gardens. That’s because the gardens, he says, have a 50-year lease that allows the group to build and tear down structures and make substantial changes to the property. Publicly owned amphitheaters, like the Fulton County-owned Wolf Creek amphitheater in College Park, are publicly owned amphitheaters rented by private companies that could be considered usufruct contracts. The concept of usufruct, deriving from the Latin words “use” and “fruit,” describes a type of contract in which the use of land and the “fruits of labor” derived from that contract are clearly defined.
The 2019 Georgia Supreme Court ruling finds that “private lessees of public property who hold only a usufruct may no longer choose to exclude persons carrying firearms from their property”
Monroe said this definition applies to leaseholders of Atlanta amphitheaters because they “can’t really do anything with the land other than lease the property and have concerts there,” Monroe said.
“They can’t build buildings on it, they can’t sell the lease to someone else and they probably can’t ban guns there either,” Monroe said.
This argument is based on an unproven legal theory that hasn’t faced any serious legal challenge..
The Botanical Gardens ruling has already led the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to change language on the website of the Home Depot Backyard – a sports and recreational space located next to the Atlanta Falcon’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium used for tailgating at Atlanta Falcons football and Atlanta United soccer games. After receiving several letters from Evans and Monroe, the GWCC agreed to remove language barring weapons from the facility from the Home Depot Backyard’s website.
The GWCC did not however update the website for the publicly owned Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which still includes “weapons of any kind including, but not limited to, knives, pepper spray, stun guns, concealed weapons and firearms” on its list of prohibited items. This, now, is a new point of contention. Monroe believes the Mercedes-Benz Stadium should remove the language from its site, following the 2019 decision.
Monroe’s legal views are not shared by all – in the case of Lakewood Amphitheater, a 2020 city report states that Live Nation “owns” the physical structures at the amphitheaters through 2034, with ownership reverting back to the city in 2034.
Bottom Line: The legal fight is just beginning with major players like the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA likely to weigh in as well. Until they do and the case is litigated in the courts, it’s unlikely that guns will be allowed in concert venues any time soon.