Atlanta music festival cancelled after promoters told they can't ban guns

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

A two-day long music festival scheduled for a public park in downtown Atlanta has been cancelled by promoter LiveNation, with sources telling Billboard magazine that move is the result of a previous court decision that made it highly unlikely the festival would be able to ban firearms from the park while the event was underway.

Billboard reports that several 2A organizations have been hinting at a legal challenge if the festival took place while barring guns from the premises of Piedmont Park, a city-owned facility that likely could not have enforced the ban thanks to a 2019 state Supreme Court decision.

As part of the 2019 ruling, Georgia’s high court set a test for how the Safe Carry Protection Act was to be enforced by private businesses using public land. Businesses and groups that held certain types of long-term leases for state-owned land could legally bar guns, while businesses with shorter term leases could not. While the ruling favored the Botanical Garden, it created legal issues for festivals like Music Midtown that held short term leases for city parks sites.

The festival, launched in 1996 by Atlanta-based music promoters Alex Cooley, Peter Conlon and Alex Hoffman, had long barred attendees from bringing guns into the event. In general, most major companies will not host a festival in a location that permits gun owners to carry their weapons into an event, with an exception sometimes made for law enforcement. Some artist riders actually have specific language saying that artist will not perform in cities or states where gun laws grant attendees the right to bring weapons inside of a concert venue.

While the 2019 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court made it more difficult for private companies to deny licensed and armed citizens access to events on publicly owned land, it did not give the city of Atlanta the authority to enforce this decision or force the festival to allow guns into the event. Instead the law created a pathway for gun carrying individuals, who had also purchased tickets to the festival, to successfully sue event organizers if they were denied entry to an event taking place on public property.

Additionally, local authorities are typically involved in security for large scale events and likely would not have been able to enforce an illegal gun ban, so the festival would have had little to no backup to keep firearms out.

The Georgia court decision has been in place for nearly three years, which should have given promoters plenty of time to come up with another venue where they could have imposed a ban on firearms. Instead, for whatever reason the promoters apparently decided to stick with the public park as their preferred location for the festival, even knowing that their short-term lease wouldn’t give them the authority to ban guns from the premises.

Of course that’s not how much of the media sees it. Rolling Stone and several other media outlets are pinning the blame for the cancellation squarely on Georgia’s gun laws, pointing to a Georgia gun rights activist named Phillip Evans, who’s complaint against the Botanical Gardens led to the state Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that differentiated between long-term lease holders and those using a public facility for a day or two. Back in May, according to Atlanta-based website Saporta Report, Evans had contacted city attorneys warning of a potential lawsuit if the festival went on as planned.

In a May 4 letter to the City Department of Law, Evans wrote, “…I’m demanding that you revoke their permit to hold the event unless they agree to follow state law and rescind this policy.”

John Monroe, board vice president at the gun rights groups GA2A and an attorney who represented Evans in the Botanical Garden case, says Evans has a case.

“Based on recent Supreme Court of Georgia precedent, Phil is correct that the Music Midtown festival cannot ban guns (or other weapons),” Monroe said in an email.

However, Monroe said, the City is likely not on the hook and Evans would have to sue the festival. “The remedy is that someone who is aggrieved by a violation is empowered to sue the violator (in this case, the festival sponsor),” said Monroe. “It’s not really the City’s obligation to “police” its permittees to make sure they follow state law.”

It was most likely LiveNation’s concern about being sued that led to the festival being cancelled, but again, promoters have had years to adapt to the Supreme Court’s decision and look for a private venue that could host the festival. The event might have been pushed out of downtown Atlanta, but odds are there’s at least one landowner in Georgia willing to make their private acreage a “gun-free zone” for a weekend in exchange for a sizable fee to rent their property.

I have sympathy for those who were hoping to take in the festival, but Georgia’s gun laws don’t pose an insurmountable problem for concert promoters. They might restrict where events like this can take place if organizers want to ban firearms from the premises, but in this case those putting together the Music Midtown festival had plenty of time to find another location that would suit their desire. I don’t know why they decided to stick to the public park given the state Supreme Court ruling, but that was their decision to make and now they’re the ones responsible for the consequential decision to cancel the festival completely.