The city of Knoxville is bracing for demonstrations Saturday afternoon featuring a rally in support of a Confederate monument and counterprotesters, but a prohibition on firearms is raising concerns among some gun rights advocates.
Because of the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks ago, Knoxville city officials are taking precautions to try to prevent protests from turning violent.
“Our officers will be there to maintain order and ensure that everybody is free to speak their piece,” said Mayor Madeline Rogero in a news release Wednesday. “These are volatile times, and I strongly urge everyone to refrain from antagonism. We can have these discussions as a community without resorting to angry rhetoric or violence.”
No guns, other weapons or masks will be allowed for people entering designated demonstration areas. People planning to enter those areas will be screened with a metal detector. Signs and flags will not be allowed into the demonstration zones if they are attached to a pole or stick or any object that could be used as a weapon. Water bottles, drink containers, coolers, beverages and food are also banned. Water will be provided on site.
The city is citing TCA 39-17-1359 in state law to support banning firearms Saturday. The statute allows a government entity to prohibit weapons at certain meetings conducted by or located on property owned or managed by the entity. Notice of the prohibition must be posted. A new provision passed by the state legislature this year requires that local government have metal detectors and security at entrances.
“The demonstration areas where weapons will be restricted is property owned/controlled by the city,” Jesse Fox Mayshark, spokesman for Mayor Rogero, told The Tennessee Star in an email. “We are following the provisions of TCA 39-17-1359 by posting adequate notice on site, by providing security and by conducting metal-detector wanding and bag checks for all who are admitted to this area.”
However, John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, says he still has concerns.
“There is still the issue under the state Constitution as well as the United States Constitution as to whether such prohibition of a constitutionally protected right in an otherwise open public venue would be a civil rights violation (18 USC 1983) and/or is otherwise unconstitutional as a violation of the state Constitution (Article I, Section 26) or the federal Constitution (2nd Amendment ‘shall not be infringed’),” Harris said in an email.
Harris, who was offering his personal opinion, noting that the TFA has not taken an official position at this point, said the fact that there are growing tensions in the country doesn’t matter. “Constitutional rights cannot be denied merely because some government official thinks it might be safer to do so – if that were the case, why not just ignore the 1st Amendment and ban protests and counter protests?”
Harris added, “People should be allowed the choice, free choice, to carry firearms for self-defense even while they are exercising their 1st Amendment rights. Carrying a firearm with the objective of using it to commit violence or a criminal act is not an act of self-defense. The use of the firearm to commit a crime is separately punishable as an aggravating factor – as well as an ‘armed dangerous felony.’ ”
At the center of a tense debate in Knoxville is a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers near 17th Street and Laurel Avenue in the historic neighborhood of Fort Sanders. The memorial was defaced last week and a petition has been created to take it down. The United Daughters of the Confederacy put up the monument in 1914 to remember the soldiers who died during an assault on Fort Sanders in 1863 during the Civil War.
Aaron Astor, a history professor at Maryville College, told WBIR Channel 10 that this particular monument is not a monument to a cause, but to the dead. Astor serves on the board of the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association.
Saturday’s demonstration areas will be near the monument along 17th Street.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett posted a statement on Facebook Wednesday saying that he wants white supremacists to stay away from Knoxville.
“The racism and hatred of these white supremacists and neo-Nazis don’t reflect our values, and they are not welcome here,” Burchett said.
Commenters under Burchett’s post criticized him for not also calling out Antifa and Black Lives Matter.