Firearms & The Future Of Festivals
Officially — and vaguely — “circumstances beyond our control” are to blame for the cancellation of this year’s Music Midtown in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, according to the event’s promoter Live Nation.
Jack White, Future, My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were set to be the headliners at the festival scheduled for Sept. 17 and 18. The event drew a reported 50K in 2021 and more than 100K for the pre-pandemic edition in 2019.
Live Nation is staying mum on what those “circumstances” were, but multiple sources point to Georgia’s permissive gun laws — in particular the state’s Safe Carry Protection Act, known colloquially as the “guns everywhere” law — and the actions of a litigious Peach State pro-guns activist.
The “guns everywhere” law, signed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, in 2014, allows Georgians to carry firearms in a host of places, including public parks, like Piedmont.
For years it was an open, unlitigated question whether tenants of public spaces were able to ban guns as private enterprises are still permitted to do.
In 2014, Phillip Evans, who lives in Monroe County, about 60 miles southeast of Atlanta, was kicked out of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which prohibited guns, for carrying a handgun in his waistband. Evans, backed by the gun advocacy group GeorgiaCarry.org (now GA2A), sued the Garden, arguing that since it is located in Piedmont Park, it was barred from prohibiting guns.
The case wound through Georgia’s court system for years. In 2019, the Georgia Supreme Court determined that the case hinged on whether the Garden was private property; it took another three years of legal argument before a state appeals court ruled that because the Garden has a long-term lease with the city, it can enact policies — including a gun ban — as a private business would.
The case is dense with legalese and Norman Law French (usufruct is not a word casually bandied about in the live performance business), but for the layman, the decision simply means that temporary users of public parks in Georgia, like Music Midtown, cannot supersede the state’s law permitting the carrying of weapons in public parks.
Evans, at least informally, indicated he would challenge Music Midtown’s gun ban based on the court decision and Live Nation seemingly blinked rather than change its no-gun policy.
Paul Bassman, entertainment/sports practice leader at Higginbotham, said insurers would likely balk at issuing a policy for any festival that openly allowed guns.
He said one of the primary underwriters for policies for festivals said they “simply would not write a festival that allowed patrons to carry firearms.”
It’s already increasingly difficult to insure festivals as security concerns increase. The crowd-crush at Travis Scott’s performance at Houston’s AstroWorld in November 2021, which killed 10 people, put those concerns in sharp focus for a segment of the industry. And any conversation of firearms and festivals will inevitably include the shooting at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Festival in 2017, which left 60 people dead and more than 400 wounded. Earlier this month, the penultimate night of MusikFest in Bethlehem, Penn., was shut down early after a man was shot in what local police call “an isolated incident.”
It must be noted though that the Atlanta Jazz Festival, which, like Music Midtown leases Piedmont Park, has no policy – one way or the other – on guns.
There’s good reason to believe that standard security requirements in some future artist riders would require promoters to implement a no-guns policy and that without protections against fans carrying weapons, performers simply wouldn’t agree to play.
The simple fact is, in many cases artists, their representatives and security teams have to assume that some patrons are carrying guns, particularly in parts of the country (such as the South) where state legislatures are relaxing gun laws, opening up places where concealed and even open carry are permitted and making it easier to get carry permits.
Without magnetometers or physical searches, it is impossible for a promoter to guarantee a guns-free performance. And, at least in Georgia where the litigation is complete, it is also impossible for them to implement those measures in publicly-owned spaces without opening the promoter up to a cause of action.
Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond tells Pollstar, “everyone remains disappointed that I have had discussions with” regarding the cancellation and there are concerns about the cultural future of a city where public festivals now face a legal predicament with no easy solution.
Though Music Midtown made Georgia’s situation acute, there may be reason to believe that promoters will face similar challenges in other states with comparable laws.
Tennessee’s so-called guns-in-parks law allows local governments to ban guns in public parks in general, but at the same time bars those governments from banning concealed-carry permit holders from carrying guns in parks.
A 2015 opinion from the state’s attorney-general says that “a third party that obtains any authorization … for the temporary use of a park, playground, civic center, or other facility owned by the county or municipality may not prohibit holders of valid handgun carry permits from possessing handguns on the premises” and further clarifies that neither erecting a fence nor charging admission changes that calculus. When then-state Sen. Lee Harris — he’s now the mayor of Shelby County, home of Memphis — requested the opinion of the attorney general in 2015, he was specifically concerned about the Memphis in May fest’s ability to bar guns.
While Tennessee AG opinions are advisory and do not have the same legal force as a court decision, they are generally treated as binding anyway, though numerous festivals and concerts held in public parks in Tennessee — Nashville’s Let Freedom Sing Independence Day event and Franklin’s Pilgrimage Festival, for example — continue to maintain a guns-free policy.
Cities — particularly more progressive cities within more conservative states, like Memphis, Nashville and Austin — certainly could try to implement local restrictions, though state law generally preempts local ordinances, and the political reality of the moment is that conservative state legislatures are increasingly coming over the top and tying the hands of their states’ progressive cities. The aforementioned guns-in-parks law in Tennessee, for example, was passed in part to annul a Nashville city ordinance banning the carrying of guns in public parks, although that law is so arcane that it allowed the carrying of a gun if it was a issued by the U.S. Navy.
The political environment is often front-of-mind for artists. Entertainment lawyer Dina LaPolt says there are artists wary of playing in certain places because of persistent rhetoric blaming lyrics, particularly in rap, for violence.
“If there’s a shooting, that’s egregious enough. But on top of it, there’s artists — particularly Black men — who are afraid of getting pinpointed,” she says.
Because much of the virulent anti-rap blame game political rhetoric also comes from politicians in jurisdictions with the laxest gun control, deciding where to play gets even knottier for performers and adds another complication for promoters and bookers.
At the moment, the gun-ban prohibition arm of this labyrinth is confined to festivals held ad hoc in public spaces, but note that a number of amphitheaters, many operated by Live Nation, are also on city parkland — Atlanta’s Lakewood Amphitheater and Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater, for example. While the Georgia decision that prompted this kerfuffle would seem to uphold any firearms restrictions, that hasn’t kept the activist Evans from suggesting he might challenge their legality as well.
So promoters are faced with a vexing trilema.
One, they could keep the no-guns policy in place to satisfy the insurers and artists, but risk a lawsuit. Or they could allow guns (or at least take no position), potentially alienating artists and making insurance a more difficult proposition. Or they could move festivals formerly in public parks to private property. That last option, though, adds an extra cost, as private land is often far more expensive to rent than a public park.
Or, like Music Midtown, they could cancel and regroup. North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper suggested the festival relocate to his state, saying “We’re ready to welcome you to one of our amazing outdoor spaces to help you host a fun and safe festival.”
It exacerbates an already difficult environment for a festival sector that’s still navigating how to deal with a surfeit of competitors, a volatile economy, a post-pandemic audience that is itself wrestling with persistent restrictions and hesitance with public gatherings.