Correction: An incorrect subhead that appeared with this story has been removed. No legal action has been brought that would let a judge decide whether the Gathering Place policy is at odds with state law.
Gathering Place officials’ decision over the weekend to turn away three people carrying handguns into the park has prompted questions about whether the 66.5-acre recreation area is public or private, and what that means for handgun policies on the property.
This much is clear: Gathering Place’s handgun policy is not in keeping with River Parks Authority’s policy, or with the policies of the city and county parks systems.
Each of those public entities follows state law, which supersedes local ordinances as it relates to handgun regulations. The law prohibits individuals from carrying legally licensed concealed or unconcealed handguns into public structures, including courthouses and schools, but carves out an exception for public parks.
“If a person has a license to carry, they can do that in River Parks, simple as that,” said Matt Meyer, executive director of River Parks Authority. “Unless it is a gated, ticketed event like Oktoberfest, where it is a private party.”
Tulsa County Parks Director Richard Bales said the county has always followed state law, including when handguns were not allowed in public parks. When state law changed, so did the county’s policy, Bales said.
“If you are having a picnic in the park, and you (carry) a legally licensed firearm, it is fine for you to be in the park,” Bales said. “If you choose to go into one of the public buildings — like a community center or pro shop — that part of the law says, ‘No, you can’t.’”
The city’s website states its policy as follows: “No Weapons in the Park except as permitted by State Law.”
Gathering Place officials declined to comment on the park’s gun policy Tuesday, instead citing a statement it issued Saturday night.
“Over many years, we sought input from the Tulsa community on how to ensure Gathering Place is a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for Tulsans and their families. The community responded emphatically that firearms at the park are not conducive to creating this kind of environment, which is why they are not permitted. Park security and the Tulsa Police Department are working together to ensure these rules are clearly communicated and consistently enforced,” the statement says.
Over the last several years, the park has been widely touted as one of the largest private gifts to a public park system or municipality.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation “gifted,” or assigned, the park — Tulsa’s Gathering Place, LLC — to a public entity, River Parks Authority, in August 2014. That agreement states, in part, that GKFF has contributed land to Tulsa’s Gathering Place “upon which to construct a public park for the enjoyment of the citizens of the County of Tulsa and the city of Tulsa.”
Gathering Place didn’t comment specifically Tuesday on whether the park is public or private but provided an agreement it says shows that the park is being operated as a private enterprise.
In that agreement, River Parks Authority reached a deal in which a subsidiary of the George Kaiser Family Foundation would maintain, operate and program the park. The subsidiary is GGP Parks, LLC.
That document states, in part, that GGP Parks, LLC, has full power and authority to “select the means, method and manner” to achieve “satisfactory operation, management, and maintenance of the park property.”
Don Spencer, president of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, said Tuesday that state statutes not only allow individuals carrying legally licensed handguns to enter parks, but make the same allowance if the park or other public property in question is leased from a public entity.
An Oklahoma Second Amendment Association member was among three individuals carrying a handgun who were turned away at Gathering Place on Saturday.
Spencer cites Title 21, Sections 1277 and 1290.22, to support his claim. Section 1277 provides the exception allowing people with legally licensed handguns to enter a public park, and is the statute local government entities commonly refer to when explaining their parks’ gun policies.
But Spencer said 1290.22 secures gun owners’ rights with language prohibiting the creation of a policy or rule that prevents “any person from carrying a concealed or unconcealed firearm on property” where legally licensed guns are allowed under 1277.
“Whether it is public property or a private entity leases the public property, the (right to) peaceful possession of a firearm does not change, because it is always considered public property,” Spencer said.
Spencer referenced a May shooting outside a restaurant at Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City as one explanation for why he believes it’s appropriate to permit individuals with legally licensed firearms to enter parks like Gathering Place.
Two men legally carrying guns confronted and fatally shot a man who had wounded three people inside Louie’s Grill & Bar.
“There is a law-abiding citizen (who) has a firearm. He stops that multitude of murders by stopping the perpetrator,” Spencer said. “We don’t know where evil is going to try to take out and do what it is going to do. But we do know that evil is stopped quicker if it is stopped in its own tracks, and sometimes, unfortunately, it takes blunt, deadly force to stop evil.”
Spencer said he has sent certified letters to Gathering Place, River Parks Authority, Chief of Police Chuck Jordan and others demanding that the park comply with state law.