Who's Packing? (and does it matter?)
Schools, hospitals and government buildings ban firearms. Why don't more communities do the same?
By Mike Ramsey
Reprinted with permission from CAI’s Common Ground TM magazine, January/February 2015
An otherwise peaceful and playful day this past summer at a southern Illinois homeowners association pool turned ugly when a resident with a history of behavioral problems became offended at a perceived slight. In retaliation, she threatened to drown someone's child.
"It was crazy. It was very frightening," says Michelle St. Cin, AMS, PCAM, regional manager for Community Property Management in Alton, Ill.
The situation was defused, but it left board members wondering: What if an over-protective parent were to pull a gun from a purse or backpack and start firing?
"Given that we are so near a military base, (we) have a lot of families who are very pro-firearm," says St. Cin. "In general, we like to hope that they are well trained, but we also have some people who, when it comes to their children in particular, are not easily controlled."
In an effort to prevent explosive situations, the board is expected to approve a no-gun rule for the pool area before the summer, St. Cin says. If adopted, it would be the first firearm restriction imposed by one of her Illinois clients since state lawmakers approved legislation—in 2013 under federal court order—allowing qualified adults to carry concealed handguns.
Illinois, which had some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, was the final state to adopt a concealed-carry system. The Illinois State Police administers the new program and screens gun permit applicants, who are obligated to complete 16 hours of firearm training. Firearms are prohibited in designated places like schools, hospitals, government buildings, prisons, bars, zoos and museums.
Individual property owners—including community associations—can elect to ban firearms, but they must post standard signs to notify gun owners. Yet most professionals agree an association gun prohibition wouldn't be absolute. Illinois communities may impose restrictions in common areas and at certain events, but they cannot ban members from legally possessing a firearm within their own homes or their vehicles. It gets trickier for condominiums. Associations must allow residents the ability to transport their guns between their vehicles and residences, even if that means firearms are carried briefly through community-owned vestibules, hallways and elevators.
"Inevitably, they have to be able to use the common-element arteries," says Howard Dakoff, a partner at Chicago's Levenfeld Pearlstein law firm, which represents more than 1,000 community associations in the metropolitan area, and a member of CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL). "The only thing the board can govern is amenities or board meetings or association events. I suppose you could probably somehow say you can't carry a (gun) and loiter in the lobby. It's loose."
Carol Marcou, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, who manages two Chicago-area condominiums for Vanguard Community Management, has dealt with Illinois' concealed-carry law nuances. The larger of her two associations—a 544-unit development in Wheeling—adopted a rule prohibiting guns in common areas, including two pools and a clubhouse. The latter space, where the board frequently meets, is also rented out for special events. Alcoholic beverages sometimes are served there.
"Guns and alcohol usually don't mix," says Marcou, a board member of CAI's Illinois chapter.
The gun restriction that board members approved in March was part of a broader package of rule changes. Now, if someone violates the no-firearms rule, he or she could be subject to escalating fines or other penalties, much as if they broke an architectural guideline.
"The board has the right to pursue any and all legal remedies depending on the severity of the situation," Marcou says.
The other community she manages also is expected to approve a similar no-gun rule for its common areas. But such measures appear to be the exception, rather than the norm, in Illinois since the concealed-carry law took effect.
"When it first came out and was all over the news, we got a few phone calls and people were concerned about it," says Joe Scharnak, a partner at Arnstein & Lehr, which represents about 300 community associations, mostly Chicago high rises. "But I would say definitely in the last nine months we haven't heard anything."
What happened? Boards that have taken up the issue concluded there are limitations to what they can accomplish, professionals say. Many communities are simply leaving well enough alone.
"Especially for associations that have been in existence for 10, 20, 30, 40 years—they've never had gun problems," says Dakoff. "The statute is just raising an issue that they've never really had a problem with. They're not fixing what's not broken."
Similarly, few community associations in Arizona, considered one of the states with the fewest gun restrictions, have enacted gun measures.
Anyone in the state who is at least 21 and meets basic criteria may carry a concealed firearm without a permit. Arizona also is one of the few states that allows open carry; residents can hold a gun in plain sight in many locations.
Ursula Mancuso, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, vice president of PMG Services in Mesa, has managed just one community association that restricted guns. More than two years ago, board members at a 55-plus homeowners association in suburban Phoenix approved a measure after a civilian affiliated with the sheriff's department wore a gun in plain sight during a meeting.
"It really made a lot of the homeowners uneasy," says Mancuso. "A lot of people got upset and asked the board to restrict guns in the clubhouse."
But the dozens of other communities her firm manages haven't taken up the gun topic. She thinks that's due to the freer firearms culture in Arizona and because violence—or the threat of violence—hasn't hit home for many communities.
And yet the tragedy at Ventana Lakes Property Owners Association in Peoria, Ariz., still looms large for some in the industry. In April 2000, a disgruntled former resident whose home was in foreclosure entered a board meeting and began shooting before he was subdued by attendees. Two people, including a board member, were killed, and three others were wounded.
The convicted killer had a history of hostile behavior and disputes with the association. He died in prison in January 2013.
"It's something that people remember," says Scott Carpenter, a partner at Carpenter Hazlewood in Tempe and a CCAL member.
Carpenter isn't sure whether the incident changed board members' day-to-day conduct, but he knows community managers who carry guns. "I suspect one of the reasons some of them carry is precisely because of Ventana Lakes," he says.
With so few gun prohibitions in Arizona communities, it's possible—in some cases, likely—that a variety of people are legally carrying firearms at board meetings. Mancuso has mixed feelings about that.
"I did have one board member—a firefighter—and I didn't know he had a gun on his side. We just got into a gun conversation, and he said, 'Yeah, I've got my Glock on me now,'" she says, referring to a brand of Austrian-made handguns. "I'm not intimidated by that fact, because he's a responsible board member, but how do I know that a homeowner sitting in the audience watching us isn't doing the same thing?"
Mancuso is by no means anti-gun. A few years ago, she became a handgun owner and went through an optional state-permitting process so she could get training. Today, she teaches women how to shoot on the gun range. She doesn't carry a gun during meetings but does so in other circumstances.
"Being in the management field, we're exposed to communities and neighboring areas that aren't in the greatest sections of Phoenix," she says. "At times, I've felt the need to keep (a gun) in my car when driving ... through a community at night, just for safety. I haven't had to use it, but it's always there for that reason."
Even though all states have some kind of concealed-carry law, some are considered more restrictive than others, depending on the amount of discretion granted to authorities and the types of requirements and fees imposed on gun owners. Gun-rights advocates consider New York one of the toughest states in which to get a license. The District of Columbia joined the concealed-carry ranks in October, following drawn-out legal challenges.
Even if a community association passes a gun restriction, some scoff at the notion that board members or managers would be able to determine who's breaking the rule, given the very nature of concealed carry. How can you tell who's packing? The most daunting challenge is obvious: enforcement.
"Are you going to frisk everybody as they come into the meeting?" asks David Firmin, a partner at HindmanSanchez in Arvada, Colo. "It's always been our advice: Don't adopt a rule you're not planning on enforcing."
Firmin says he hasn't seen a community association pass a gun restriction but adds that Colorado is comparatively relaxed about firearms, especially in mountain communities. In some jurisdictions, the county sheriff encourages people to get their concealed-carry permit, he says.
That doesn't erase the fears that some board members or managers may have about guns in associations, especially during meetings, Firmin concedes.
"Board safety is always of paramount concern," he says. "But I've always looked at it from the point of view that if we're really worried about a meeting, or if we're really worried about an owner's—or, quite frankly, a board member's—behavior, an off-duty sheriff or an off-duty police officer is a couple hundred bucks, and it's money well spent. Just bring him in uniform."
Mancuso, the Arizona manager, wonders if Skype sessions and conference calls will one day replace in-person board meetings if there are persistent safety concerns. She says not every community can afford a security guard to watch over a meeting.
A Kind of Nuisance
Veteran Florida community association lawyer Donna DiMaggio Berger, a shareholder at Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale, says the issue of guns rarely comes up for her. An exception occurred recently when a board member had a bullet whiz past in her backyard. A neighbor had been target-shooting on his property.
"That would seem to constitute a nuisance," says Berger, a CCAL member. "If an association becomes aware of an owner who is discharging a gun, in either the common areas or on his or her lot, the board has a couple of options. One is to contact the county or the city to see what the local ordinances are with regard to discharging firearms. Even contact the local police department. Find out if the person has a license for that gun."
An association also can consider beefing up the anti-nuisance provision in its documents, but Berger advises steering clear of specific gun language.
"This is a very, very emotional, hot-button topic, and it could either be people in the community who feel very strongly about their right to do what they wish with their firearms, or it could be leaked to the NRA and become national news. You never know," she says.
Florida was the scene of a recent workplace shooting in which a condominium association manager was wounded. In October, a disgruntled ex-employee of the President of Palm Beach entered the condominium offices and shot manager Jeremy Holland in the forehead, police say. The suspect, a 72-year-old former doorman, was later apprehended by authorities. Holland, 39, survived the shooting but is expected to have a long road to recovery.
Professionals say rules banning weapons in common areas aren't likely to stop deranged people from striking if they are bent on destruction.
"Rules and regulations aren't going to stop that," says Howard Perl, another Becker & Poliakoff shareholder. "Conversely, if the manager had a right to carry a concealed gun or somebody else in the office had a right to carry a concealed gun, and they had it with them, could that have been prevented? Who knows?"
Mancuso doesn't know how she would respond in a real-life shooting scenario. A year ago, when she was on the shooting range, a man who rented a gun committed suicide in full view of everyone. He was two lanes away.
"I watched the man die in front of my face, and it was horrible," she says. "I froze. I didn't know what happened. I didn't know what to do."
The last high-profile killing at a community association occurred in September 2012, in Louisville, Ky. Mahmoud Hindi shot two Spring Creek Homeowners Association board members following a drawn-out property dispute involving Hindi's family members. He began firing during a meeting held at a church before he was subdued by audience members.
Hindi was found dead in his jail cell in October 2013—an apparent suicide.
Not many community associations have dealt with the issue of guns, but professionals say that could change if and when the next violent incident occurs.
"I think whenever there's a tragedy, boards re-evaluate whether they should take another course of action," says Dakoff, the Illinois attorney. "I don't know if the conclusion will be any different."
St. Cin, the southern Illinois manager who is working with one community on a no-gun rule for its pool, would rather not wait for a crisis. She plans to bring up the issue of gun restrictions with the rest of her dozen association clients.
She won't try to sway them, but she wants board members to know their options.
"No one likes to bring up something negative and put things out there that are restrictive," says St. Cin. "I want to avoid a lengthy debate in these associations if possible, but at least give the boards the opportunity to consider it."
Mike Ramsey is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Resources: The Second Amendment in Your Community: Concealed-Carry Laws and the Right to Bear Arms. On-demand webinar. Presenters: Kimberly Sutter, Esq., Robin L. Strohm, Esq. Members: $69.
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