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No quick draw on weapon law

December 27, 2011

Leaders in Catawba County are discussing possible actions related to a new state law that prohibits municipalities from banning permitted concealed weapons in town and city parks.

Municipal leaders, however, say they don't expect immediate council actions to create new ordinances to align with the law and allow permitted weapons.

The law, which took effect Dec. 1, also includes a provision that lets cities ban concealed weapons from recreation facilities such as playgrounds, athletic fields and swimming pools. Leaders of some cities and private groups across the state say the issue is ultimately destined for court because the law's definition of "recreational facility" is too open for interpretation.

Earlier this month, Hickory City Council voted 6-1 to allow people to carry concealed handguns without restrictions at Hickory city parks and recreational facilities. So far, about 20 cities and towns across the state have either approved or discussed ordinances related to the law.

Newton, Conover and Maiden officials say members of their municipal staffs have recently talked about the law, but no immediate action is expected.

"The police chief, recreation leader and attorney are having discussions," said Newton City Manager Todd Clark. "I'm thinking probably in the next two months, it will probably come up for council to have a discussion about. The staff will make a recommendation to city council."

Conover City Manager Donald Duncan said he has discussed the law with Police Chief Steve Brewer, but there are no current plans for the issue to come before the city council.

"When the law was passed, our concern in Conover was that it is not enforceable, No. 1, unless you're just going to stand there and watch people," Duncan said. "No. 2, people who carry concealed weapons have a license and a permit to do that. Those aren't the people we're worried about carrying concealed weapons. It's the people carrying concealed weapons illegally that's our concern."

Duncan said he's not aware of any problems with concealed weapons in Conover parks and recreational areas, and he said he doesn't believe the issue affects Conover as much as cities like Hickory, Newton and Maiden, which operate municipal recreation and parks programs.

Maiden leaders are awaiting actions by larger municipalities before making their decision on an ordinance, said Town Manager Todd Herms.

"Small municipalities let larger municipalities work through it and then work their way through what the law actually says," Herms said.

"By us allowing that to happen, yes, we're maybe a month or month and a half behind them, but we end up saving staff time and money by letting them do that. We don't try to reinvent the wheel."

Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun rights advocacy group, says many cities are overstepping their bounds by interpreting the legal definitions in the law as broadly as possible so that, for example, an entire park could be declared a "recreational facility," or a lake could be redefined as a swimming pool.

At least one city wants to avoid that entirely: Raleigh officials plan to ask the General Assembly for an exemption from the law next year.

"Many of these municipalities for what appear to be ideological reasons are taking ridiculously expansive definitions of what constitutes a recreational facility," said Paul Valone, Grass Roots North Carolina's president. "They're torturing the definition of recreational facility in order to ban handguns in as many places as possible."

That's not the case, according to Roxane Kolar, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, a group that's been encouraging cities to approve such ordinances.

"Some of this is that the law is unclear, but every city we've seen pass these ordinances, we believe, has followed the letter of the law," she said.

Valone said he doesn't think there should be exemptions from the state law blocking cities from banning guns in parks. He argues that it reflects inaccurate attitudes about the people who obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.

"We don't feel that a municipality should ban concealed handguns anywhere in parks," he said. "We feel they should simply repeal them, period, end of story."

For Kolar, who describes her group as moderate on gun control, the issue also boils down to philosophy.

"We just don't think there's any need for guns on a playground," she said.

Kolar and Valone agree the matter is headed to court. Valone said his group is recruiting plaintiffs for potential litigation, and Kolar said the language of the legislation is too vague to stand as it is.

"I think this piece of this law will have to go to court," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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