Guns can’t be ignored. Whether concealed or carried openly, firearms are endemic in the U.S. and the very topic has fed fiery debates pre-dating the nation itself. Concealed handguns are permitted in every state, with varying degrees of required licensure. And in more than half of the country concealed handgun permits are issued without the requirement of any live-fire training—so no mandate that a concealed handgun owner has ever physically learned to fire a weapon.
Between 2007 and 2015, the number of concealed gun permits issued in the U.S. nearly tripled (from 4.6 million to 12.8 million), according to a report by the Crime Prevention Research Center. So that’s roughly 4 percent of the U.S. population that has gone through the permitting process to carry a concealed gun. It may come as a surprise to many, however, that “open carry” is legal in 45 states, 31 of which require no license at all.
That all adds up to attendees potentially showing up armed at your event. How does that jibe with your organization’s mission and policies, insurance plan and the overall attendee experience?
Match Your Culture
Throughout this year, Andy Johnston, president of the Atlanta-based Idea Group, has published an informative series of posts regarding event emergencies. Until recently, he says, the topic of guns at meetings and events simply hasn’t received much attention.
One tactic for creating firearms guidelines that Johnston has recommend to clients is the “home office policy”: Apply to the event and event venue(s) the same rules for gun possession found at your organization’s headquarters.
“It’s about matching your culture,” Johnston says. If your culture is welcoming to guns, then they should be allowed; if your headquarters prohibits firearms, so should your event. It’s all about consistency and building policy from existing culture and knowledge rather than starting anew for no good reason.
At one event, Johnston recalls meeting a couple from Arizona who showed up each wearing a holster with a legal handgun. The problem was, they appeared to be the only attendees with weapons. That naturally spooked others in attendance so the planners spoke to the couple and they removed their firearms.
“To them, it was just normal each morning to get dressed and strap on [their guns],” Johnston says. They didn’t intend to intimidate—their personal culture just didn’t match that of the event, at least concerning guns.
To avoid these situations as much as feasible, Johnston suggests including messaging about event gun policies in every appropriate communications avenue. Even if you don’t think guns could become a contentious issue at your event, inform all attendees throughout the process—on your event’s web page, during registration, in the “know before you go” and even with signage posted on site.
You should certainly learn about the gun laws that apply to the state/county/city in which you’re meeting—ideally at the early site visit stage, prior to booking—but, dependent on the particulars of your gathering, your group may only require a Cliff’s Notes-style overview. (Review gun laws on a state-by-state basis.)
Such research and commensurate communications to inform attendees was the tact taken by the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) leading up to their 2016 annual meetings. In November 2015, the Atlanta-based organizations, along with more than 25 other U.S.-based scholarly societies, released a statement expressing concern about Texas’ new “campus carry” law. Campus carry allows those with concealed and/or open carry firearms licenses to legally bring weapons onto the campuses of public universities in the state. (The law was passed in 2015 but, in a twist that can only be deemed obscenely ironic, went into effect Aug. 1, 2016—50 years to the day since Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas tower in Austin and shot 49 people, killing 18.) The groups were concerned that campus carry in Texas would add serious safety threats to college campuses, negatively affecting students and professors—part of their member demographic.
“AAR and SBL staff and board proactively began thinking through policy considerations in fall 2015, well before any of our members expressed concern to us,” Jack Fitzmier and John F. Kutsko, executive directors for AAR and SBL, respectively, explained via email.
This concern wasn’t a case of judging Texas legal policy from a distance; in 2010, the AAR and SBL booked San Antonio for their 2016 annual meetings. So in March, Fitzmier and Kutsko addressed the matter in another joint statement.
“Our staffs met with the management of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (HBGCC), general managers of hotels, directors of security, and Convention and Visitors Bureau officials in San Antonio and raised a number of questions about firearm policies in the city, in particular, how we might (or might not) be able to designate areas of our meetings that would be gun free,” Fitzmier and Kutsko shared. “Staff found them eager to discuss how their properties were responding. They were all very aware and responsive to our concerns about the recent changes in Texas’ law regarding firearms… We are pleased to report that we have more capacity to designate areas as ‘gun free’ than we had anticipated.”
To ensure attendees received the relevant information, the groups looked specifically at the three types of venues that would be used during the meetings—and how the state’s laws applied to each. This is an easily consumable, straightforward approach to working with your venue partners while providing the clearest possible information to your attendees—and for this, the AAR and SBL should be applauded. From the groups’ communique:
The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center: As a municipally owned venue, the HBGCC is required to comply with state law as it pertains to the open and concealed carrying of handguns. However, private entities that license use of the Center make the determination as to whether open carry is allowed within its leased space during the time of an event. Consequently, the Convention Center will allow us to post signage banning firearms in all of the space we have rented, which includes our exhibit hall, meeting rooms, and the pre-function space outside of our meeting rooms. We shall post such signage.
Hotels: The Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, and Hilton Palacio Del Rio ban firearms (both openly carried and concealed) from their properties. They have signage to this effect at all entrances. Two hotels allow open and concealed carry, the Marriott Rivercenter and the Marriott Riverwalk. However, they will allow us to post signage banning firearms in all of the space we have rented, which includes our meeting rooms and the pre-function space outside of our meeting rooms (i.e., the entire second floor of the Marriott Riverwalk and the entire third floor of the Marriott Rivercenter). Again, we shall post such signage.
Other: Most restaurants and other businesses in downtown San Antonio have opted to declare their properties firearm-free. Handguns are prohibited in bars and restaurants with 51% or more of the revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages. We trust that our members will observe posted signs about the presence of firearms during their visit to San Antonio, and that they will frequent private businesses with regard to their own views on these matters.
Shortly thereafter—and no less impressive—the groups assembled a more detailed list of gun policies for each of the 20 San Antonio hotels included on the meetings’ registration web pages, the majority of which do not allow guns on property. In addition to the Marriott Riverwalk and Marriott Rivercenter, cited in the executive directors’ letter, five additional hotels on the list are noted to allow “persons who are lawfully permitted to possess a firearm” to bring it on property, whether concealed or open carry: La Quinta Convention Center, Marriott Plaza, Courtyard Riverwalk, Holiday Inn Riverwalk and Residence Inn Alamo Plaza. As you can see, the “gun-friendly” properties represent multiple hotel groups. (There are certainly arguments in favor of allowing legal firearms into hotels—first and foremost, perhaps, is that the weapon would, in theory, be more secure on the person of a responsible gun owner than sitting in a car in the parking lot—but this isn’t the place for that discussion.)
The landscape of best practices for hotels as relates to gun policies is complicated, involving branding factors, franchise agreements, locations, adjacent facilities and more.
A trio of partners from the Dallas office of Holland & Knight held a webinar this year titled “Navigating the New Open Carry Laws in Texas.” During that discussion Partner Kelly Bagnall shared her insights into how hotels are handling these new challenges so far.
“Only one brand that I’m aware of is taking an approach that all their managed hotels post the signage,” Bagnall said, referring to the signs that must be posted for a business in Texas to legally prohibit concealed and/or openly carried firearms on the premises. “In speaking with Justin Bragiel, general counsel for the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association, he indicates that most of the hotels with which he’s spoken in [Texas] are not posting [signage]. However, that decision may be impacted by whether or not they’re in areas where there is a lot of traffic in their lobby that’s unrelated to hotel guests, for example…the San Antonio River Walk area [or] downtown areas.”
Bagnall added a very important note for hoteliers as it relates to proper communications with potential group clients: “Don’t forget the sales team as they are required, in many of their discussions with groups that are coming to that hotel, to make certain disclosures at the time.” So just as planners should be communicating gun-related issues to potential attendees, it’s imperative that venue sales staff communicates these details to planners early and often to ensure a clear understanding and avoid last-minute stress.
Back to the communications efforts of the AAR and SBL, the groups went on to detail to members two points about gun laws and their events that they felt to be significant, explaining how concealed handguns are permitted in every state and how some form of open carry is allowed in most states: “In this respect, our San Antonio, Texas, meetings … are not the exception, but the rule. All the cities that can provide us the resources necessary to hold our meetings are located in states that allow citizens to carry firearms with varying restrictions and permits. This has been true…in Atlanta (2015), San Diego (2014), Baltimore (2013) and Chicago (2012). It will be true in the days ahead as well: in San Antonio (2016), Boston (2017), Denver (2018), San Diego (2019), Boston (2020) and San Antonio (2021).”
Collectively, the AAR and SBL expressed concern about U.S. gun laws trends that are, when compared to global norms, loose. But their best practices to safeguard and inform attendees are the extent to which they can directly affect change.
“The responses have been many and varied, which is not surprising given the many thousands of members our organizations have. As might be expected, some questioned whether Texas should be of any more concern than other states,” explain Fitzmier and Kutsko. “European members, coming from societies where public policy approaches to firearms tend to be different, seemed to have more questions and concerns than our domestic members. Generally, our members appreciated that their association leadership had given substantial thought to the issue and were letting them know what Texas firearm laws permit; how we plan to deal with these realities during our San Antonio Annual Meetings; and how we plan to deal with this question in cities that we will visit in the years to come.”
This may all sound like a lot of effort for two groups that have never experienced problems at their events due to guns, but it’s an effort that more meeting planners should be taking to help ensure security and the peace of mind of all involved.
Joshua Grimes, Esq., of Philadelphia-based Grimes Law Offices, has been consulted about gun laws by organizations seeking guidance when considering or in advance of holding an event—particularly with respect to new laws in some states.
“For example, Georgia enacted legislation in the past year that allows firearms to be brought anywhere, even into bars,” Grimes says. “The group was surprised that the government would pass a law allowing firearms in places where alcohol is served. This is of concern to groups, both because alcohol and live weapons are a dangerous combination, and also because this combination could raise the group’s insurance rates, or even make the event uninsurable.”