Guns in city parks? Ordinance is unclear, staff seeking commission direction on concealed carry in parks

About a dozen people recently came to a City Commission meeting, requesting that the commission make it legal for those with concealed carry permits to carry their weapons in city parks.

During the Oct. 17 meeting, Ron Staley said he believed city code made it illegal for the concealed carry of weapons in city parks.

“This leaves law-abiding citizens of Great Falls at a disadvantage against criminals,” Staley said during the meeting.

A quick read of city code makes it seem that the city prohibits concealed carry in city parks, but based on the city code exceptions that refer to state law, it turns out, it’s legal for those with valid concealed carry permits to carry their concealed weapons in city parks.

City code currently restricts the open carrying of weapons in public assemblies, schools and publicly owned buildings, as well as city parks. But there are also exceptions under state law.

City Attorney Sara Sexe reviewed the code and Montana Code Annotated and her determination is that the exceptions allow for those with valid permits to concealed carry in city parks. That does not apply to public buildings.

Tammy Evans, said that as a mother, she was concerned that the world wasn’t the same place as it was when the ordinance was changed in 1997.

“Back then, parks were for kids,” Evans said.

To her, city parks were now for gangs and drug dealer wannabes, she said during the meeting.

The city adopted the ordinance in 1997 after the Montana Legislature passed a law enabling local governments to restrict the weapons in public spaces and staff recommended the rule to protect users of those facilities, according to the meeting minutes.

Cindy Moyer told commissioners that she’s lived in Great Falls for 17 years and that as a young adult, she’d endured a home invasion and an assault.

“Great Falls forbids me to be armed while enjoying city parks,” Moyer said during the commission meeting.

Jennifer Grena said, during the meeting, that being able to carry concealed weapons in parks is a good thing if there’s an altercation. She said many men and women use the River’s Edge Trail system by themselves and that they should be able to defend themselves.

“Carrying a gun doesn’t mean you have to use it,” she said.

During the meeting, Mayor Bob Kelly said it wasn’t an issue the commission was interested in addressing right now, but that it warranted a conversation.

Commissioner Fred Burow said that he doesn’t think city parks are a good place for open carry, but concealed carry should be considered since permit holders go through a process.

“I really do think it needs to be revisited,” Burow said.

In a memo to the commission, Sexe wrote that the city has consistently enforced the prohibition of weapons, concealed or otherwise, in public buildings and assemblies since the rule was adopted in 1997.

“However, in evaluating all of the ordinance and statutory provisions together, this clear direction is muddled by exceptions. The City Attorney’s office recommends an ordinance amendment to clearly set forth the commission’s direction as to the application of the prohibition,” Sexe writes in her memo.

Under state law, the city has the authority to restrict the concealed carrying of firearms and the city has exercised that by enacting an ordinance, according to Sexe’s memo.

But a review of the language of the ordinance along with the stated intent of the 1997 Commission, “indicated that the restriction applies to public buildings or to public assemblies, but does not apply to concealed permit holders who may choose to carry in public parks,” Sexe wrote. “The ordinance language and the multiple exceptions to the prohibition provided both in ordinance and in statute lead to confusion in application of this prohibition.”

In her memo, Sexe asks commissioners for direction so that staff can make the ordinance more clear.