Cancellation of Atlanta festival sparks new fight over guns

ATLANTA (AP) - Tens of thousands of Music Midtown festival-goers will no longer descend on Atlanta's massive Piedmont Park next month to cheer on hip-hop star Future or see popular rock band My Chemical Romance on stage.
In fact, some people are convinced that Atlanta -- the center of the country's hip-hop music scene -- will lose more music festivals and performances on public lands as organizers and performers learn that state laws make it nearly impossible for them to admit people to them prevent the inebriated masses from carrying arms between them.
That prospect has ignited a new gun rights battle in Georgia that is upsetting the governor's race, casting a shadow over Atlanta's vaunted music scene and increasing tensions between the city and the state.
Live Nation has declined to say why it recently canceled September's Music Midtown, a longtime fixture for pop music lovers.
However, news outlets, citing anonymous sources, traced last week's announcement to a 2019 Georgia Supreme Court decision that limited the ability of private companies to ban guns on public property. The ruling was based on a 2014 state law that expanded the locations where guns were allowed.
Democrats, led by Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, jumped at the news, portraying the cancellation as an example of the kind of economic fallout the state would experience from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's "extreme guns agenda." Though the gun law cited in reports on Music Midtown was enacted under Kemp's Republican predecessor, this year Kemp was a key supporter of a new state law that eliminated the need for a license — and therefore a background check — to carry a handgun in public.
An editorial in the Atlanta Journal Constitution warned that gun policy threatened Atlanta's status as the "Cultural Capital of the South." Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman lamented the loss of this year's Music Midtown and its timing.
"All of these things culminate at the moment when we should be coming out of COVID with music festivals and people gathering, a lot of economic activity," he told The Associated Press.
Aside from the immediate fallout, the fight also contributed to a division between the heavily Democratic Georgia capital and the GOP-controlled state legislature, which has recently expanded gun rights and restricted access to abortion and voting rights. State leaders clashed with major Atlanta-based companies Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola over the voting changes, which the companies called "unacceptable."
Live Nation did not respond to emails about Music Midtown's cancellation. The festival's website cited "circumstances beyond our control," but no one from the company has publicly blamed the state's gun laws.
Phillip Evans, a gun rights activist who previously sued the Atlanta Botanical Garden over its gun-free policy, said he warned Music Midtown organizers that their gun-ban policy violated state law. Evans' lawsuit prompted the Supreme Court's 2019 ruling that private companies with a certain type of lease on public land could not ban guns.
Live Nation planned to host the festival in Piedmont Park — public land — where the festival has been held every year since 2011, with the exception of the coronavirus in 2020. And it almost certainly fell into the leasing category, which would make a gun ban illegal .
"As far as Music Midtown is concerned, it's practically a no-brainer that they can't ban guns there," said John Monroe, an attorney representing a gun rights group in the state Supreme Court case.
Canceling the event because of gun laws would make sense from Live Nation's perspective, said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University.
A mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017 that killed more than 50 people cost MGM Resorts International — the concert hall's owner — and its insurers $800 million in legal claims. With no gun restrictions, Live Nation viewed a potentially "astronomical" exposure to liability at Music Midtown, Lytton said.
The cancellation was a blow to Georgia's economy and local businesses.
Abrams said in a statement that Kemp is "more concerned with protecting dangerous people who carry guns in public than with saving jobs and running businesses in Georgia," and her campaign this week released an attack ad that focused on the cancellation concentrated. Democrats in other states also agreed.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak tweeted, "Here in Nevada we believe in common sense gun safety and protecting our reproductive rights. @MusicMidtown, we'd love to have you in the Silver State!” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also invited Music Midtown to his state.
Kemp accused Abrams and other Democrats of "imposing" critical narratives about Georgia's gun landscape to distract from the inflation he attributes to party policies.
Georgia was also recently attacked by Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom over a state law banning most abortions once fetal heart activity is present. The law went into effect last month.
Newsom ran an ad in Variety last week calling on film companies to halt production in states, including Georgia, which he accused of a "cruel assault on fundamental rights." State tax credits have made Georgia a major destination for film production.
Kemp told reporters last week he wasn't concerned about attempts by Democratic governors, including in California, to lure business away from Georgia.
"Have you checked gas prices in these states lately?" Kemp said, citing strong industrial development, tourism and film numbers in Georgia.
Gun rights advocates have identified at least one other Atlanta music venue they say could violate the 2014 Gun Act -- Chastain Park, which features an amphitheater in an affluent residential neighborhood and bans "guns" at shows.
But activists say they're not trying to shut down events, just protecting themselves.
"If I'm walking into a large crowd anywhere, I want to be able to carry my firearm," said Georgia Second Amendment executive Jerry Henry. "I can assure you there will be criminals out there."
Associated Press contributors Jeff Amy and Bill Barrow contributed to this report.
Brian Kemp
Secretary of State of Georgia

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