Some Mecklenburg commissioners want to ban guns in parks. Do they have the power?

Some Mecklenburg County commissioners want to explore whether they can prohibit guns in county parks and recreational facilities, in what would be a shift in direction for the new, all-Democratic board.

But it’s unclear how much the county board could change the current rules, which generally allow concealed carry permit holders to carry firearms in county parks and on greenways, except for land leased from schools, where guns are already banned. A state law passed in 2013 significantly limits where local governments can prohibit concealed carry permit holders and specifically exempts greenways and open park space.

Still, the idea appeared popular when it came up last week at the commissioners’ annual budget retreat in Greensboro. Board chairman George Dunlap referenced a 2013 vote in which the county commission agreed to allow guns in its parks. That measure passed 5-2, with Dunlap and fellow commissioner Vilma Leake voting against it.

“We were not able to get the support to prohibit guns in our parks,” Dunlap said. “I still feel strongly about that. We have a different contingent of commissioners now and I think that issue needs to be revisited.”

“I agree,” at-large commissioner Trevor Fuller said, as several commissioners nodded and someone murmured “no guns in parks.”

After the retreat, Dunlap said the brief discussion stemmed from addressing guns in schools. Dunlap said that while he hasn’t heard much from constituents on the issue, “I think the concern in general is that if you’re in a public park, that ought to be a place of safety.”

County commissioners haven’t scheduled a discussion on the topic of guns in parks, but could place it on a future meeting agenda.

Mecklenburg County attorney Tyrone Wade provided a copy of the county’s current firearms regulations, but said he couldn’t answer a further question about specific measures the county could take that wouldn’t conflict with state laws because he was not at the retreat.

State laws give local governments the power to ban concealed guns from recreational facilities, but limits those facilities to athletic fields, swimming pools and athletic facilities such as gyms, said John Aldridge, assistant general counsel with the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

By specifying the recreational areas where concealed guns can be banned, and specifically excluding greenways, walking and biking paths and open areas or fields, legislators crafted a statute that “tried to cover as many contingencies as possible,” Aldridge said.

A separate, 1995 statute allows local governments to ban the open display of firearms in public parks or recreation areas. But because the concealed-carry statute was written more recently, it would take precedence over the broader open-carry law if the two conflict, Aldridge said.

“As things stand now, local governments generally lack the authority to prohibit concealed carry in parks,” Jeffrey Welty, a criminal law expert at the UNC School of Government, added in a 2013 blog post, at the time of most recent change in that law. Welty could not be reached for more information.

The county board saw a lot of turnover this year, with four new commissioners, all Democrats, joining the nine-member body. All three incumbent Republicans were swept out of office.

Former commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who was defeated last year, helped lead the 2013 effort to allow guns in the county’s parks. He said it’s a sensible way to help increase safety in public places where people sometimes run alone in the early morning or evening hours.

Ridenhour said he hopes the current commissioners don’t try to change the policy.

“This is only for licensed, concealed carry permit holders, not just anyone who wants to stick a gun in their pants,” said Ridenhour. “They take it very seriously. They’re not cowboys, spinning it (their gun) around, twirling it on their fingers.”