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New Orleans’ Firearm-Free Zones Have Stalled After Pushback

After a February special legislative session gave gun-rights groups sweeping wins, bills to expand firearm-free zones have stalled. Expansion of the zones seems unlikely this year.

Melvin Howard, a retired New Orleans Police Department veteran who is now a deputy chief in the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, doesn't see much good for downtown New Orleans in a new law allowing people 18 or older to carry concealed guns without a permit.

"Giving an 18-year-old permission to carry a gun or to have a gun, is to me just ludicrous," Howard said in a recent interview. "At 18 years old, you're not even sure what you want out of life. But you can carry a gun. 'Here, take this gun. Anybody looks at you hard, shoot 'em.'"

Howard supervised officers for a decade in the NOPD's Eighth District, which includes the French Quarter and Central Business District. He said he learned and later taught other cops how to read telltale body language to spot danger on the street.

Melvin said he anticipates more "collateral damage" on those streets when the law takes effect in July, pointing to a lack of required firearms training.

"The more guns you have on the street, the more bullets you have, the more people that get injured," he said. "It's simple math."

Howard is among several New Orleans officials who have urged a carveout in the new law for the French Quarter and downtown, in testimony or public statements. But those efforts have fallen flat in a Legislature that just handed gun-rights groups sweeping wins during February's special session on crime.

Their opposition, along with that of Gov. Jeff Landry, has squelched support to exempt the Quarter or other New Orleans tourism centers, say backers of proposals to expand gun-free zones in the city. Advocates from both parties concede there's slim support for new geographic limits this year.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, NOPD Superintendent Anne Kirkpatrick and City Council president Helena Moreno all urged lawmakers this month to treat New Orleans differently when the permitless concealed carry law takes effect in July.

They say the law will endanger officers by stripping them of a tool to stop and pat down people suspected of carrying guns illegally, particularly in the Vieux Carre, where police have focused those patrols. Kirkpatrick said she hoped to make New Orleans a gun-free city but would settle for "hospitality" zones.

Neither appears likely this year. The two bills seeking expansion of firearm-free zones in New Orleans — one from state Rep. Alonzo Knox, D- New Orleans, and the other by state Sen. Kirk Talbot, R- River Ridge — remained in limbo this week.

A third bill, authored by state Rep. Aimee Freeman, D- New Orleans, would have added nursing homes, day cares and child development centers statewide to the 1,000-feet firearm-free zones that currently exist around schools. It died last week in a House committee.

Landry's office did not respond to questions about his stance, but Talbot and Freeman both said in interviews that the governor has voiced his opposition to new firearm-free zones. Freeman said Landry made that clear early in the regular legislative session, in a meeting the governor held with the New Orleans delegation.

"The way the governor spoke about it, it didn't seem like anybody was going to sign anything," Freeman said. "Young people leave the state for reasons like this."

Knox shelved his bill just before a committee vote, saying he planned to work with Talbot on a palatable rewrite. Knox did not return messages for comment this week.

Talbot, R- River Ridge, filed a bill that would outlaw carrying a concealed handgun at school or pro sporting events, or within the French Quarter Management District without a permit. A self-described conservative Republican and gun enthusiast, Talbot said this week that the path forward was unclear for his bill, which he had yet to bring up for debate.

"Right now we're just trying to figure out what kind of posture we can put it in and where it'll pass. We're just not there yet," Talbot said.

"We're just trying to figure out what that sweet spot is. The governor's office, NRA, House members, Senate members, people from the gun-owning associations — I'm trying to see if we can get on the same page."

Talbot said he voted for a raft of gun-friendly legislation during February's special session. But he worries about the consequences of the permitless concealed carry bill to the city's entertainment district.

" Bourbon Street is a different animal, and it is unique. They should have a permit," Talbot said. "Not a lot of cities have open container. Not a lot of cities have a stretch of blocks where they have 24-hour bars with open container. They confiscate a bunch of guns on Bourbon Street."

Talbot said his bill "isn't about chipping away at gun rights. What's practical? What makes sense? What helps police officers do their job?"

The new law for permitless concealed carry "puts the police in much more perilous situations than they're already in on a daily basis," he added. "There are going to be more guns on Bourbon Street."

But gun-rights groups, fresh off major wins during February's special session on crime, have come out flatly opposed to firearm-free zones of any stripe.

NRA lobbyist Kelby Seanor declined to comment. But Daniel Zelenka, president of the Louisiana Shooting Association, dismissed the idea that common ground can be found.

"Carveouts don't make any sense to me, for the same reason gun-free zones don't make any sense: people who are criminals, people who are going to do bad things, that's the least of their concerns," he said.

Zelenka downplayed fears over police and public safety, arguing the law still bars people from carrying concealed weapons while drunk or high. The law also says people carrying guns must alert law enforcement when approached.

Zelenka said his group plans to continue opposing measures it views as rolling back the new law. In the meantime, gun advocates are backing legislation to free gun owners to carry concealed firearms without permits in restaurants that serve alcohol.

Another bill that would allow schoolteachers to carry concealed firearms isn't likely to be heard this year, Zelenka said, though he wasn't concerned.

"Some things need to ripen," he said. "We've had a pretty good year."

(c)2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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