LANSING, Mich. – The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate on Tuesday began passing legislation to let people with extra training carry guns inside churches, schools and other places now off limits.
The bills were approved by a committee on 3-2 party-line votes, two days after a gunman killed 26 people at a Texas church. The full chamber planned to vote Wednesday. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed legislation in 2012 that would have allowed concealed pistol license holders with additional training to carry in gun-free zones.
"Anybody who wants to exercise their right to protect themselves and have a firearm should be able to do that where they need to," said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive, a sponsor of the main measure . Gun-free zones, he said, are a "target-rich environment." He said while he had already planned to hold the hearing this week, the Texas shooting reinforced the need to proceed.
Under Michigan law, it is illegal for the nearly 618,000 people with concealed weapon permits to carry in designated gun-free zones — schools, day cares, sports arenas, large concert halls, taverns, places of worship, hospitals, many college dorms or classrooms, and casinos. However, the law does not explicitly prevent them from openly carrying in those areas, which has led to lawsuits and court rulings.
The current law also gives the leaders of churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship permission to allow concealed weapons.
The legislation would prohibit open carry except in certain circumstances, but allow concealed carry in the areas previously dubbed gun-free zones, as long as a license holder completes eight extra hours of training or is a certified firearms instructor. Private establishments that were previously gun-free zones could still prohibit guns, but public facilities could not.
Gun-control advocates criticized the legislation and the timing of the vote.
After a man killed 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas last month, Meekhof said it was an "awkward time" to consider gun bills.
Emily Durbin, a psychology professor and volunteer leader of the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, accused Meekhof of finding the "right tragedy he can exploit to push some dangerous bills that completely upend and gut long-standing public safety protections. ... We want to keep sensitive spaces free of guns."
There is no evidence, Durbin said, that letting parents or others adults be armed would make schools safer. She questioned allowing guns in taverns and stadiums that serve alcohol and said loosening gun laws leads to more gun deaths.
Lawmakers are expected to approve a change giving school districts the authority to prohibit teachers and staff — but not parents and others — from bringing guns to schools. One bill would add school districts, libraries and community colleges to a state law that prohibits local governments from regulating gun possession, effectively overturning a 2016 state appeals court ruling that upheld gun bans by the Ann Arbor and Clio districts.
At the committee hearing, opponents such as education and hospital lobbyists and gun-control activists far outnumbered the bills' supporters, such as the National Rifle Association.
Robert Rudowski with the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners said the legislation would help to protect "sheep waiting for the wolf."
"The idea of this bill is to have highly trained people, well concealed, preventing soft targets," said Rudowski, of Macomb County's Clinton Township.
But Scott Nichols, a retired state trooper from the Lansing area and a board member with the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, warned the bills would cause "chaos" for police arriving on the scene of a school shooting who might be unable to distinguish between the perpetrator and bystander who pulled his concealed gun.
When Snyder vetoed the legislation nearly five years ago, he expressed concern that it would not have let public entities such as schools, day care facilities and hospitals choose to remain gun-free. A spokeswoman said Tuesday he will not weigh in publicly until final bills have cleared both the Senate and GOP-led House.
The new legislation would not apply to three of 15 public universities — the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State — because they are autonomous under the state constitution.
Senate Bills 584: http://bit.ly/2yEMgoM
Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/David%20Eggert