Possession of weapons in parks is governed by Tenn. Code 39-17-1311. Generally, it is an offense for a person to carry certain weapons in or on the grounds of any public park owned by the state, counties, cities or towns. There are exceptions for law enforcement officers, security guards and others. This article concerns the exception for handgun permit holders.

In 2009, the Tennessee legislature amended the statute to allow permit holders to carry handguns in state and local parks, nature trails, greenways, etc. However, a county or town could vote to prohibit handgun possession. Some localities chose to prohibit possession of firearms and some did not. Knoxville, for example, chose to allow an ordinance to remain in force that prohibited firearms in parks.

In 2015, the legislature again changed the statute, eliminating the authority of local governments to prohibit possession of handguns by permit holders in or on parks, nature trails greenways, etc. But the ability of a permit holder to possess handguns in parks is not unlimited. The defense does not apply if the permit holder:

a) Possessed a handgun in the immediate vicinity of property that was, at the time of possession, in use by any board of education, school, college or University board of trustees, regents, or directors for the administration of any public or private educational institution for the purpose of conducting an athletic event or other school-related activity on an athletic field, permanent or temporary, including but not limited to, a football or soccer field, tennis court, basketball court, track, running trail, Frisbee field, or similar multi-use field; and

(b) Knew or should have known the athletic activity or school related activity described in subdivision (b)(1)(H)(a) was taking place on the property; or

(c) Failed to take reasonable steps to leave the area of the athletic event or school-related activity after being informed of or becoming aware of its use;

There are several points to consider. For example, there is no definition of what is the “immediate vicinity” of property being used for a school activity. Is it 100 feet, 100 yards, within sight distance or what? The section of the statute allows the permit holder to leave the area if he or she comes upon a school-related activity while in a park.

Second, the defense applies to permit holders with handguns only, not rifles or shotguns.

The Tennessee Attorney General has issued an opinion (15-63 Possession of Firearms in Public Parks Owned by Counties and Municipalities), stating that third-parties operating public parks or conducting events in public parks, may not prohibit permit holders from possessing handguns. The Opinion is just that, an opinion. It remains to be seen if a court will agree.

As with many other areas of firearms and the law, there are traps for the unwary. Read statutes carefully.