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Lansing — A Michigan Senate committee approved a fast-tracked plan to allow guns in schools, bars, churches and other “gun-free” zones that could be voted on by the full Senate as soon as Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is sponsoring the centerpiece of the package, which would allow concealed pistol license holders to carry their guns in schools so long as they’re hidden from sight. The Senate Government Operations Committee approved the legislation in a series of 3-2 votes Tuesday, with Democrats voting against the measure.

The Senate leader told reporters Tuesday that “now is the time.”

“I believe it is the right time. I think the public sentiment is in our favor saying, ‘we can’t have these pistol-free zones become the criminal empowerment zones that they’ve become,” Meekhof said, adding that the recent Texas shooting has nothing to do with the timing of the package.

Devin Patrick Kelley is accused of killing 26 and wounding 20 others Sunday at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Kelley was able to buy weapons because the Air Force acknowledged that it didn't enter Kelley’s criminal history into the federal database used to conduct background checks on citizens looking to purchase a firearm, according to the Associated Press.

Michigan law now allows concealed pistol license owners to openly carry guns in schools, but few people do. The package would expand that allowance, opening other areas that prohibit them such as churches, bars, and stadiums, according to the legislation.

It is currently illegal in Michigan for people to carry concealed weapons in schools, day care centers, sports arenas, stadiums, bars, places of worship, hospitals, colleges or universities and casinos.

Meekhof and other supporters say the plan would make students and others safer in the event of another mass shooting because trained gun owners would be able to fight back. But opponents such as Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, gun control and school groups say the legislation would increase the risk of tragedy and heighten anxiety at a time when people are already inundated with news of mass shootings.

“I’m not sure what’s worse, the bills or the insensitivity to what’s happened over the weekend,” Ananich said. “We haven’t even buried those 26 individuals yet in Texas. And to say the best response to that is go forward with making people less safe? I don’t think we want to spiral down a place where we’re trying to be the least safe state.”

It’s unclear if Gov. Rick Snyder, who has opposed expanding gun access in the past, would sign the legislation. But Meekof, when questioned by reporters, said he hopes Snyder will be on board.

“I have repeatedly said that this is a discussion worth having, and now is the time,” Meekhof told the committee.

“I know this is a sensitive issue and a topic that can elicit very passionate responses,” he added, urging those testifying before the committee to be brief.

The two Democrats on the panel voted against the entire package but were outnumbered by Republicans, who control both the state House and Senate. The Michigan Association of School Boards and the American Federation of Teachers Michigan also oppose the legislation.

Much of the testimony Tuesday opposed the plan. The committee hearing room was packed with outraged detractors.

Emily Durbin, a psychology professor and volunteer leader of the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, accused Meekhof of now 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 citizen 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.

But Meekhof said the bills would make carrying guns less disruptive to schools because those licensed to carry concealed pistols would have to carry them in secret rather than out in the open, where they can trigger alarm and anxiety among staff or students.

Meekhof had previously said that he wanted to explore the issue after tensions cooled following the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people and wounded 500 others. He also said he’s waiting to consider a separate House plan that would scrap concealed pistol training requirement.

The Associated Press contributed

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

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