Walking into the Chicago Cultural Center for a warmhearted retirement celebration last week, I was pulled up short at the double door by a set of stickers. The ones with the menacing black handgun inside a bright circle, with a line through the gun. Those signs are, of course, a response to the new Illinois Firearm Concealed Carry Act (430 ILCS 66/1, et. seq.), which became law last year.
This month, the Illinois State Police (which has put out precise regulations mandating the size and content of those legally defensible "no firearms" stickers) has begun accepting permit applications from those who wish to carry a gun in public on Chicago's streets; permits are likely to be issued beginning in April.
As the Tribune's Dahleen Glanton and others have reported in this newspaper in the last several weeks, the regulations as to who can legally carry a gun in what kind of public space are byzantine, even self-contradictory, and clearly will yield some unintended consequences. I read the legislation. It explicitly exempts zoos, museums and sports stadiums, but not, say, opera companies.
However, there also is interesting (and, to my mind, vague) language prohibiting guns at events requiring permits; one might argue that venues with the city of Chicago's Public Place of Amusement license might fall in that category. It's very murky. The Cultural Center shouldn't need the stickers, being a building controlled by a unit of government and thus exempt. But there they are. Perhaps they were taking no chances.
The stickers are not new. Keefer's Restaurant on West Kinzie Street made news (and some enemies) last summer by posting signage and becoming one of the first private businesses in Chicago to ban guns from its premises, as the act permits.
Glenn Keefer, the managing partner, told the Tribune, "I just don't think guns and alcohol go together."
Indeed not. But do guns and arias?
These stickers are not yet pervasive, especially when it comes to Chicago's august cultural organizations. The Cultural Center's stickers were the first I'd seen at an arts venue. That is likely to change. A spokesman for the Goodman Theatre said that the Goodman plans to install the "no guns" stickers on its doors in the next few days. Other groups, such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, said they still were studying the issue. Still others were surprised by the question. A couple did not want to talk about it at all. The issue is, several people noted, very complicated.
So what are those issues when it comes to guns and the arts in a brand-new concealed carry state?
Well, let's note, first of all, that such stickers are a severe negative for international tourism, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel was touting this week with a fine new plan to light up Chicago's magnificent buildings.
It may well be that Chicagoans going to an arts event will become used to seeing a "no guns" sticker on the door, and that, over time, we come to view them no differently than a posted prohibition of smoking. So concealed carry advocates say, and they may be right. But if you are visiting from Europe, those stickers will jump out at you, especially in a city that has to combat its long-standing rat-a-tat-tat reputation. They will fill many an iPhone screen and Facebook feed, and images of those stickers will wing their way back across the Atlantic. "Look," these bemused visitors will say, "the good people of Chicago are worried about patrons bringing guns in with them to see Shakespeare! How crazy!" They will muse on Twitter as to why venue X seems to dislike guns and venue Y does not (perchance the symphony worries more than the opera; you get the idea).
Perhaps there is nothing the city can do about this new situation (its hand has been forced in this matter by higher legal authorities). But if we are thinking of Chicago in international terms, the consequences are the consequences. And the stickers have writ this new situation large and in your face.
There also is rich irony in, say, Steppenwolf Theatre now likely being put in the position of having to allow guns inside its theaters (unless it puts up those stickers), when it has been so meticulous and passionate in youth programming intended to combat the problem of gun violence. The conundrum of the stickers also brings up several other issues. If an arts venue explicitly bans guns with these stickers, it arguably (and these things pertaining to the act have yet to be really tested by the courts) creates a liability problem for itself, just by bringing up the issue. If someone were to be shot in the balcony, they would be likely to sue. They would then be likely to argue in a court that the venue, the venue with the "no guns" stickers on the door, had an obligation to protect them against such intrusions. Venues can't say for sure what the courts would do, but their lawyers will worry.
Would, say, the Lyric thus feel a new obligation to install a metal detector? How would that sit with the dressy set on opening night? And will the stickers prove to be enough? Will we be hearing curtain speeches about weapons not being welcome?
And lest you think that all these matters are merely in the abstract, that the idea of bringing a gun to a classical concert is absurd, consider both the long and ignoble history of guns inside theaters and also what happened in recent days just outside Tampa, Fla. The Grove 16 movie theater, a theater that reportedly had signs forbidding guns, was the scene of a fatal shooting following a dispute between two patrons, well beyond the first flush of youth, attending a screening of the movie "Lone Survivor." The argument reportedly was about one person texting during the show, to the chagrin of the other person. One person shot another. There was a flurry of flying popcorn.
When I read that story Wednesday, the moment on Saturday night at Court Theatre when someone's cellphone went off at the most crucial emotional moment of the show snapped into my head.
Hostility flooded into the room with startling force. I don't want to imply anyone at Court was packing at heat or will be packing heat after April, but the situation in Tampa still gives one pause. The arts spark intense emotions. To go to a movie is to have to deal with other people behaving badly. Performers and audiences can share spaces. The blood easily can boil.
Concealed carry advocates argue that the new law also could prevent a different kind of movie theater tragedy, the kind where a deranged shooter kills innocent people and who now might get stopped in such a timely way that lives are saved. I don't deny that possibility, although what happened last week in Tampa is what happened last week in Tampa and has happened before.
Regardless, this is suddenly a very different landscape. Guns now are far more likely to be in the room. And live performances of all kind are deeply impacted by what (and who) is in the room and how they are feeling. It is an unknown, a rather chilling unknown at that.
Will we see some kind of artistic response to these stickers, the one with their echoes of "Ghostbusters," if only they were amusing? We should, and I am not just thinking of a new line or two in the Tommy Gun's Garage tourist show.
The "no guns" stickers indicate a vivid sea change in the cultural nomenclature of the city, a new set of circumstances to ponder, an altered reality for a night on the town. Watching Hedda Gabler fiddle with her pistols on the stage of Writers Theatre the other night, I was musing at how much more acutely the use of onstage weapons might soon be felt.
If just walking through the door of an arts venue makes you think about guns, the mood in the room surely will then be different when some tenor pulls out a weapon.
Perhaps you just can get used to anything. Or maybe artists will grab this as a teachable moment, a chance to create a groundswell against the entire situation. We'll have to see. At this juncture, these stickers mostly feel like an invasion of neutrality, a sense that our sacred creative spaces are being pulled back into the real world.
So is it better not to ban guns and hope they will be used for good in an arts venue, if they are there at all? Or does one make an at-the-door show that they are not welcome, sending patrons carrying legal weapons scurrying back to their cars, where the weapons can sit unattended in glove compartments, perchance available for other kinds of mischief and miscreants operating in other places?
It's a tough call for the arts and, either way, very much a bet on a painful unknown.
Twitter @ChrisJonestribCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun