Beale Street Merchants To Ban Guns

By Bill Dries

WEAPONS BAN: “We are a much more violent society than when we started Beale Street,” said Beale Street developer John Elkington of the 25 years the district has been open. New security measures on the street will screen visitors for guns. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Beale Street developer John Elkington calls it the “summer of discontent.”

It was the summer three years ago when the entertainment district cracked down on minors being on the street late at night and began screening the adults at different checkpoints along the street. Elkington remembers 650 knives being seized that first summer.

Later this month, Beale Street will break out the hand-held metal detectors at the entrance points and use other security measures to keep guns out of the three-block area day and night.

The new measures are a reaction to the Tennessee Legislature’s passage of a law permitting those who legally own handguns to carry them concealed in places that serve alcohol as long as they aren’t drinking.

“When this street is closed it actually becomes a private street under our control. Most people don’t understand that,” Elkington said of his company, Performa Entertainment. “We live in a different city than many of the legislators who voted for this bill, who live in rural areas. … We are a much more violent society than when we started Beale Street (in 1983). Twenty-five years ago there wasn’t anyone Downtown.”

A way around the law

“We have a right to make sure that common sense prevails.”
– Onzie Horne
Executive Director, Beale Street Merchants Association

Guns, even those legally owned, will be confiscated if they are found in the district – inside and outside the clubs, Elkington said. And signs notifying patrons of the gun ban are going up at the entrance points to the district as well as outside each business.

“We have a right to make sure that common sense prevails,” said Onzie Horne, head of the Beale Street Merchants Association. “We do not want to put on our wait staff the responsibility for exercising judgment as to who’s consuming an alcoholic beverage and who’s not – who’s having a weapon concealed on their person and who’s not. It is an undue burden that would be practically unenforceable.”

Elkington said he and the merchants also fear their insurance premiums will rise with the new law, making it more expensive to do business.

Elkington made several trips to Nashville earlier this year to lobby for the defeat of the legislation. He urged Gov. Phil Bredesen to veto the bill. Bredesen did and the Legislature with Republican majorities in both chambers overrode his veto. The Republican majorities for the bill included representatives and senators from the Shelby County delegation.

“There’s not that many people in the state who are concerned about it,” Bredesen said this week in Memphis as he talked about supporters of the bill as well as another new state law permitting guns in state parks. “It’s obviously very well organized.”

Toxic cocktail

Bredesen termed the guns in bars law “fairly outrageous” and something “real people who hold political office” don’t want.

State Representative Curry Todd of Collierville, a retired Memphis police officer, was among the sponsors who argued the legislation is an extension of Second Amendment constitutional rights and a response to street crime.

“The lobbying for this gun legislation was very strong and very directed,” Bredesen said.

He told reporters the reactions that have come with the implementation of the new laws should show that more Tennesseans oppose than favor them.

Elkington said Beale Street merchants will pursue a gun ban as part of the city’s beer ordinance, a way around the state law and more comprehensive than its provision allowing businesses to individually opt out of the law.

“In many areas it may not be an issue. But in an urban area – a Downtown urban area that primarily has establishments that serve more liquor than food – it becomes a huge problem,” he said.

Beale Street’s security measures and other ground rules have been adjusted several times in recent years. Although alcoholic beverages can be carried and consumed within three blocks of the district – even outside – the street no longer has outdoor bars.