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Michigan bills would allow concealed guns in schools, churches

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/8/2017 Kathleen Gray
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LANSING, Mich. — In the wake of mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas that left dozens of people dead or injured, a Michigan Senate committee approved bills Tuesday that will allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons in gun-free zones such as schools, churches, day care centers, bars, dorms and stadiums.

The shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, which left 26 people dead and 20 more injured, makes state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a Republican from West Olive, Mich., more certain that now is the time to take up the gun legislation.

"Some have said it’s insensitive to bring up these issues now, but I feel quite the opposite," he told a standing room-only crowd in the Senate Government Operations Committee. "The recent events will allow us to look at how we can deter those who want to do harm. And responsible, well-trained, licensed concealed-pistol holders can be one of those deterrents."

More: Texas church shooting underscores security concerns for houses of worship

The bills taken up in the Senate Government Operations Committee passed on a party-line vote with Republicans supporting the three-bill package and Democrats opposing it. The bills also would close the open-carry loophole, effectively barring gun owners from openly carrying their weapons in gun-free zones.

"That’s the part that causes the schools to shut down and lose a day of educational experience for students and that’s problematic," Meekhof said.

He gained support from gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association and the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners.

"The idea of having the ability to arm a well-qualified, well-trained individual is tantamount to setting out a scenario where we no longer set up a sheep for the wolf," said Robert Rudowski of the gun owners group.

Gun-free zones should be called "mass murderer empowerment zones," said Steve Dulan, spokesman for the gun owners group.

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But far more people were at the committee hearing to speak out against the bill, including school groups and Moms Demand Action, which has been fighting for more gun controls.

"Tragedies are going to happen. But we're concerned this change could create more accidental incidents and the additional training doesn’t come close to training an individual for high-intensity situations," said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. "Unless you’re trained for a military or police perspective, you're not well-trained."

Emily Durbin, Michigan chapter president of Moms Demand Action, said the debate was definitely on the wrong track.

"Two days after the latest shooting, we’re here not having a conversation about keeping guns away from domestic abusers, increasing background checks or banning bump stocks," she said. "Instead, we're urgently discussing what the gun lobby wants and that's a desire to have more guns in more places, no questions asked."

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed similar legislation in 2012, just four days after a horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., when a heavily armed man muscled his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

More: Texas community colleges allow guns starting Tuesday

Snyder said that bill had a fatal loophole that didn't allow for those institutions to opt out of the new legislation and prohibit weapons from their buildings. His spokeswoman, Anna Heaton, said Tuesday that Snyder hasn't seen the latest version of the concealed- carry bills and hadn't taken a position on them.

Meekhof said he has talked with Snyder about the new legislation and that he's "not necessarily" on board with it.

The new legislation would allow schools to prohibit students, both minors and adults, from carrying concealed weapons in schools. The bill also is expected to be amended on the Senate floor, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, to allow schools to prohibit employees from carrying concealed weapons in schools.

The legislation also would allow private businesses, such as bars, to declare themselves gun-free zones.

"We’re not going to pre-empt a private property owner's right to post for a weapon-free zone," said Meekhof's spokeswoman, Amber McCann.

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The additional training for the concealed-carry license would be four more hours of classroom sessions and more time on the gun range.

Tom Lambert, president of the Michigan Open Carry organization, opposed the bills because they would bar gun owners from openly carrying their weapons. He supports gun owners being able to carry guns however they want.

"It is asinine to me that we would create an uneven playing field and give mass murderers an advantage," he said. "I would agree guns should not be in our schools. The problem is we can’t stop somebody who is truly intent on evil."

But the Michigan Education Association had a different perspective.

"Education and parent groups have joined us in opposing this misguided legislation because they, too, understand that the answer to gun violence is not more guns in schools — in fact, that’s a recipe for disaster," Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said in a statement. “The only people who should be allowed to carry firearms in public schools are police officers and school security personnel, period."

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Meekhof said the bills — SB 584-586 — could come up for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, and probably will pass the chamber, where Republicans hold a 27-11 majority. The House has another version of gun bills — allowing concealed-carry of weapons with no permits — that is unlikely to survive scrutiny from Snyder.

Moving the bill so quickly after the massacres in Texas and Las Vegas was incredibly thoughtless, said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint.

"I’m not sure what’s worse, the bills or the insensitivity of what just happened over the weekend. We haven't even buried those individuals in Texas yet," he said. "And we're talking about making it less safe."

Follow Kathleen Gray on Twitter: @michpoligal

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