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Georgiacarry. Org., Inc. v. Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc.

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 7, 2019

GEORGIACARRY.ORG., INC. et al.
v.
ATLANTA BOTANICAL GARDEN, INC.

          BETHEL, JUSTICE.

         The Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc. (the "Garden") leases land from the City of Atlanta where the Garden maintains and nurtures an extensive garden complex. The Garden wishes to enforce a policy precluding the possession of firearms by visitors to, and guests of, the Garden, like Phillip Evans. Evans holds a valid weapons carry license under Georgia law and asserts that he is authorized to carry a firearm at the garden under the authority of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c), which provides that license holders "shall be authorized to carry a weapon . . . in every location in this state not [excluded by] this Code section." The Garden counters that it may enforce its policy based on an exception to the general rule found in the same statutory paragraph. Specifically, the Garden claims that it may exclude Evans because it is, in the words of the statute, "in legal control of private property through a lease" and is thus entitled "to exclude or eject a person who is in possession of a weapon . . . on their private property." Id.

         As a preliminary matter, it is worth noting that the resolution of this appeal does not turn on an interpretation or understanding of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States[1] or of Article 1, Section 1, Paragraph VIII of the Georgia Constitution.[2] Nor does this appeal require us to determine whether the statute runs afoul of other provisions of the United States Constitution or the Georgia Constitution regarding property rights. Rather than requiring an analysis of these constitutional issues, this appeal turns only on the proper interpretation of the above- referenced statute.[3] We granted certiorari to consider whether OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) permits a private organization that leases property owned by a municipality to prohibit the carrying of firearms on the leased premises. The Court of Appeals determined that it does and affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Garden on the petition for declaratory and injunctive relief filed by GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. ("GeorgiaCarry") and Evans (collectively, the "Appellants"). See GeorgiaCarry.org, Inc. v. Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc., 345 Ga.App. 160 (812 S.E.2d 527) (2018).

         Contrary to the rulings below, we determine that for purposes of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c), property may be considered "private" only if the holder of the present estate in the property is a private person or entity. In this case, because the City is a public entity, if it is the holder of the present estate, then the leased premises is not private property within the meaning of the statute because property owned by a municipality is not "private property." If the City thus owns the property, then the Garden has no right to exclude the carrying of firearms on the leased premises because it is not "in legal control of private property through a lease." If, on the other hand, by the terms of the 50-year lease with the City, the Garden holds the present estate in the property, then the property is "private property," the Garden is a "private property owner," and it had the right to exclude Evans from carrying a firearm on the premises. However, because the lease is not in the record on appeal and because this determination requires an examination of its provisions to determine whether it granted an estate to the Garden, summary judgment should not have been granted in favor of the Garden under the theory it asserted in its motion for summary judgment. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings.

         1. Background.

Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). Thus, to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact so that the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A defendant may do this by either presenting evidence negating an essential element of the plaintiff's claims or establishing from the record an absence of evidence to support such claims. . . . Summary judgments enjoy no presumption of correctness on appeal, and an appellate court must satisfy itself de novo that the requirements of OCGA § 9-11-56 (c) have been met.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Cowart v. Widener, 287 Ga. 622, 624 (1) (a) (697 S.E.2d 779) (2010).

         The underlying facts of this case are largely undisputed. As the Court of Appeals recounted:

The Garden is a private, non-profit corporation that operates a botanical garden complex on property secured through a 50-year lease with the City of Atlanta.[4] Evans holds a Georgia weapons carry license and is a member of GeorgiaCarry, a gun-rights organization. In October 2014, Evans twice visited the Garden, openly carrying a handgun in a holster on his waistband. Although no Garden employee objected to [Evans'] weapon on his first visit, he was stopped by a Garden employee during his second visit and informed that weapons were prohibited on the Garden premises, except by police officers. A security officer eventually detained Evans, and he was escorted from the Garden by an officer with the Atlanta Police Department. Evans and GeorgiaCarry subsequently filed a petition in the Fulton County Superior Court, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on the basis that OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) authorized Evans-and similarly situated individuals-to carry a weapon at the Garden. The trial court dismissed the petition after concluding that the issues were not appropriate for the relief sought, a ruling that the Supreme Court reversed in part on appeal. See GeorgiaCarry.org v. Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc., 299 Ga. 26 (785 S.E.2d 874) (2016). On remand, the trial court held that the Garden's property was considered private under well-established Georgia precedent, allowing the Garden to exclude weapons and, consequently, granted summary judgment to the Garden.[5]

GeorgiaCarry, 345 Ga.App. at 161. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Garden, and we granted certiorari.

         2. History of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c).

         The current text of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) was enacted as one of a series of significant revisions to Georgia's weapons possession laws beginning in 2008. Until June 30, 2008, former OCGA § 16-11-127 (a) prohibited individuals from carrying firearms and other prohibited items "at a public gathering." See Ga. L. 2003, p. 423, § 1 (effective June 1, 2003). "Public gatherings" included, but were not limited to, "athletic or sporting events, churches or church functions, political rallies or functions, publicly owned or operated buildings, or establishments at which alcoholic beverages are sold for consumption on the premises." OCGA § 16-11-127 (b) (effective June 1, 2003). The Code section also provided that it did not "otherwise prohibit the carrying of a firearm in any other public place by a person licensed or permitted to carry such firearm[.]" Id.

         In 2008, the General Assembly amended this Code section to, among other things, provide that certain government and law enforcement officials were permitted to carry "pistols" in "publicly owned or operated buildings," except that a courthouse security plan could prohibit the carrying of a pistol in a courthouse. Ga. L. 2008, p. 1199, § 4 (effective July 1, 2008). The 2008 law also permitted any "person licensed or permitted to carry a firearm" under state law to carry a firearm, subject to some limitations, "in all parks, historic sites, and recreational areas, including all publicly owned buildings located in such parks, historic sites, and recreational areas and in wildlife management areas . . . and in public transportation[.]" Id. The 2008 law also provided that no person was permitted to carry a firearm into a place prohibited by federal law. Id.

         On June 4, 2010, a more sweeping reform to the firearm possession laws, including the provisions of OCGA § 16-11-127, took effect. Except for government buildings, courthouses, jails, prisons, places of worship, state mental health facilities, and areas in and around schools, the new version of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) permitted "a license holder" and other statutorily authorized persons to carry a weapon "in every location in this state." Ga. L. 2010, p. 963, § 1-3 (effective June 4, 2010). The 2010 law provided that any person who carried a weapon into any of the prohibited locations would be "guilty of carrying a weapon . . . in an unauthorized location" and that such conduct would be "punished as a misdemeanor[.]" Id. The 2010 law also contained the proviso that "private property owners or persons in legal control of property through a lease, rental agreement, licensing agreement, contract, or any other agreement to control access to such property" had the right to "forbid possession of a weapon or long gun on their property." Id.

         On July 1, 2014, this Code section was again amended. Among other changes to the state's weapons possession laws that took effect the same day, the proviso in OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) was amended by the General Assembly to insert the word "private" in three instances where it had not previously been included:

. . . private property owners or persons in legal control of private property through a lease, rental agreement, licensing agreement, contract, or any other agreement to control access to such private property shall have the right to exclude or eject a person who is in possession of a weapon or long gun on their private property[.]

(Emphasis supplied.) Ga. L. 2014, p. 599, § 1-3 (effective July 1, 2014). This is the current text of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c), and it was in effect at the time the Garden prohibited Evans from carrying a firearm onto the premises the Garden leases from the City of Atlanta.[6]

         The Garden and amici curiae[7] have argued throughout this case that, because the Garden has a private property interest-a leasehold-in the premises it leases from the City of Atlanta, that premises is considered "private property" within the meaning of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) for the duration of the lease. It was on this basis that the Court of Appeals determined that the Garden had the right to exclude Evans from carrying a firearm on the premises. As discussed below, we reject this interpretation of the statute.

3. For Purposes of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c), "Property" is Public or Private Depending on the Nature of the Holder of the Present Estate in the Property.

         As we are concerned here with the interpretation of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c), we begin with well-established principles of statutory construction. As we have discussed:

[A] statute draws its meaning from its text. And because we presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant when it comes to the meaning of statutes, we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would. Important are the common and customary usages of the words, which, in cases like this one, include the usual and customary meaning of terms as used in a legal context. For context, we may look to other provisions of the same statute, the structure and history of the whole statute, and the other law-constitutional, statutory, and common law alike-that forms the legal background of the statutory provision in question.

         (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Loudermilk, 305 Ga. 558, 562 (1) (826 S.E.2d 116) (2019).

         The key issue in this case is the meaning of the phrase "private property," as it is used four times in the current version of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c). That Code section provides, in relevant part, that

A license holder[8] . . . shall be authorized to carry a weapon . . . in every location in this state not [excluded by] this Code section; provided, however, that private property owners or persons in legal control of private property through a lease, rental agreement, licensing agreement, contract, or any other agreement to control access to such private property shall have the right ...

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