Group to ban weapons at youth ball fields

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

JANESVILLE--The Janesville Youth Baseball and Softball Association plans to post signs banning guns at ball fields that the group leases from the city, an association official said.

The move comes after a Whitewater man unknowingly dropped his loaded, concealed-carried handgun in a softball outfield at the city's Youth Sports Complex on June 8.

A player found the gun later that day and turned it over to an umpire.       

Aaron Ellis, who is a Janesville police officer and president of the Janesville Youth Baseball and Softball Association, said a legal opinion from the city indicates the association can post ball fields it leases as weapon-free zones.

“It looks like we'll be able to post 'No concealed, no open carry' signs. That was good news for us, I think,” Ellis said this week.

The group plans to post the fields as soon as it gets legal wording written and signs made, Ellis said.

Ellis said the weapon-free signs won't necessarily prevent people from bringing guns to ballgames, but they could limit the group's liability and make people who carry guns think twice.

“You're not going to be able to prevent someone from carrying a weapon. You can't pat down hundreds of people at softball or baseball games,” Ellis said. “But hopefully, this will make people think, 'Do I really need to bring my gun when my granddaughter is going to a softball game?'”

In a legal opinion City Attorney Wald Klimczyk emailed last week to city and group officials, Klimczyk said the city has no authority to ban weapons from city-owned and “occupied” parks or open spaces.

According to the State Bar of Wisconsin and state law, municipalities cannot ban firearms on government lands, which includes parks.

Yet, Klimczyk said, a provision in state law allows private groups that lease public spaces to ban guns and post signs that designate leased spaces as weapon-free zones.        

According to the email, Klimczyk's read on the law is this: Because the Janesville Youth Baseball and Softball Association  is a private group that leases ball fields from the city, the association—not the city—“occupies” the space.

Therefore, he said, the association as a private group can ban weapons under a provision of law that covers trespassing while carrying firearms.

Nik Clark, who is president of the nonprofit gun rights advocacy group Wisconsin Carry, said he believes that read on the law is “stretching things.”

He's not sure if it's lawful to ban guns at privately leased public parks.

Clark said he believes the law's firearms trespassing provision doesn't clearly spell out whether leaseholders who rent open public spaces for limited activities such as baseball and softball are “occupants,” or whether a municipality and its taxpayers continue to occupy the spaces. 

Clark said the Janesville group could declare its youth baseball and softball games a “special event,” which could allow the group to ban guns there. But under state law, he said, that could require the association to place "secured, controlled gates" at the ball fields.  

Some Wisconsin cities have tried to lease parks to nonprofits for a dollar a year as a way to prohibit guns, but it doesn't always work, Clark said.

The city of Appleton had looked to ban weapons at a private farmers market. He said Appleton officials told him the ban failed because the market was held in an open public space with no controlled gates.

If people continue to bring weapons to the Youth Sports Complex, Ellis said, the association could enforce its ban by calling police. But he said many involved in the association are city police officers or Rock County sheriff's deputies. Those officers could opt to handle violations “discreetly,” Ellis said.

“If they or somebody else saw somebody with a weapon, they could say something like 'Look, why don't you go lock that up in the car?'” he said.

Ellis said he doesn't believe the rules will cause confrontations with people who'd argue their right to carry firearms.

He acknowledged that any time a municipality or private group tries to limit where people can take weapons, it can raise the hackles of gun rights groups. 

“I think that's a legitimate fear. We didn't know what the blowback would be. Some groups come in and try to bait you into doing something illegal with open carry or concealed carry,” Ellis said.

Ellis said the ban is not about the association being anti-gun.

“It's not because we have a strong feeling on guns. On any given night, we have hundreds of kids at the fields. The potential for an accident is too great to risk,” Ellis said. “Common sense is that this is the best action for us to take."

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