Firearms in parks no game

Officials throughout the state worry about concealed guns being permitted at sporting events.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:53 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Parents screaming at coaches. Coaches shoving umpires. Spectators fighting in the stands.

Hooliganism has become such a familiar part of youth sports that some Missouri parks officials worry hidden guns could soon add a new element of danger.

“It’s nothing anybody is proud to admit that happens during their program,” said Bill Lockwood, director of the Jefferson City Parks and Recreation Department. “But during competitive sports, tempers do flare.”

Missouri’s concealed gun law — passed by lawmakers last month, overriding a veto by Gov. Bob Holden — remains on hold while a St. Louis Circuit Court judge considers constitutional concerns.

Dave Ostlund, executive director of the Missouri Parks and Recreation Association, said the question of whether people can carry a concealed gun in city parks also needs to be addressed.

The law allows guns to be banned in public buildings. It also forbids them in a handful of other places, such as amusement parks and sports arenas that seat more than 5,000 people.

It does not exclude public parks and outdoor ball fields — where most youth sports are played, Ostlund said.

“In retrospect, I wish our organization had looked at the wording more carefully,” Ostlund said.

Missouri hasn’t seen the horrific cases that have garnered national attention — such as the Massachusetts father who beat another man to death at their sons’ youth hockey practice, or the parent who got part of his ear bitten off during a Little League baseball brawl in Florida — but it has prompted programs to distribute pamphlets outlining team and spectator conduct.

“In Springfield, we have prohibited smoking at park events, and we don’t allow liquor in our parks,” said Dan Kinney, director of the Springfield-Greene County Parks Department. “But it’s all right to carry a gun. There’s something about that picture that just ain’t right.”

Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, said his organization declined to get involved in the gun debate when it was moving through the state legislature because the 630 cities it represents were divided on the issue.

“I don’t think anyone was aware of it until the governor’s veto was actually overridden, and people started reading the thing,” Markenson said.

At the request of dozens of members, Markenson said he recently talked with legislators about amending the law to allow an exclusion for cities wishing to ban guns in public parks. The earliest any legislative change could take effect would be next August.

Meanwhile, the Jefferson City Council has drafted an ordinance that would designate gated park facilities — such as tennis courts and its ice arena — as amusement parks. It also wants to declare open picnic pavilions and bathhouses at swimming pools as buildings.

“The topic of guns has been a divisive issue,” Lockwood said. “I think most people would agree that particularly in youth sports, where there are tempers, the last thing that needs to be introduced is firearms.”

Rick Kitchen, who is chairman of the American Legion baseball program in Columbia and also has officiated youth sports, said he believes concerns about concealed guns are unfounded.

Kitchen points to other states that have similar gun laws and have not experienced a spike in violence.

“It’s just another scare tactic that politicians and others are using,” Kitchen said.

Mark Govea of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department sees it differently.

“We are very concerned about people carrying concealed guns in our parks,” he said.

Council members also have discussed designating Swope Park — a nearly 1,800-acre park that is home to the city’s zoo and amphitheater — as an amusement park.

City leaders in Cape Girardeau also are divided on the overall issue. There seems to be an agreement that guns don’t belong at youth events, City Attorney Eric Cunningham said.

“Before if people argued, the worst thing that would happen is someone gets hit with a fist,” Cunningham said. “If people are allowed to carry guns, who knows what will happen?”

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