Mich. Senate OKs guns in schools, churches, preschools

Michael Gerstein Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Despite outcry from Democrats and school groups, people could carry concealed guns inside schools, bars, preschools, churches and other places where they’re currently prohibited under a plan the Senate approved Wednesday.

The Republican-led Senate approved the bills in a series of 26-11 and 25-12 votes along party lines. Sen. Marty Knollenberg of Troy was the only Republican to vote no — on Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s bill to allow guns in currently gun-free zones, including bars, arenas, stadiums, hospitals and casinos, at the discretion of the private property owner.

Meekhof, R-West Olive, fast-tracked the plan after a Senate committee he chairs signed off on the legislation Tuesday and two days after a shooting in a Texas church. Meekhof had told reporters Tuesday that “now is the time,” although he said the unexpected urgency after months of stalling has nothing to do with the latest mass shooting.

On Wednesday, Meekhof urged passage to prevent violent atrocities. On Sunday, 26 people were killed in a shooting at a Texas church.

“I thought after this most recent one: People are not given the opportunity to defend themselves and they are sitting ducks in these pistol-free zones,” Meekhof told reporters after the Senate vote. “It is the right time to have this discussion. It is the time to make sure law-abiding, highest-trained gun owners in America be able to defend themselves in pistol-free zones.”

The legislation would allow schools to prohibit staff from carrying concealed pistols if they so choose. Universities would also be able to decide whether to allow weapons on their campus or dorms if it becomes law.

Democrats failed to get a series of amendments to the legislation approved and opposed the entire package of bills Wednesday, arguing they would make students and others less safe.

Calling it “pistols in preschools legislation,” Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said the package “does absolutely nothing to stop bad guys from obtaining guns in the first place,” which he pointed to as the heart of the problem.

Hertel proposed an amendment that failed to get Republican support to stop people on the no-fly list from obtaining a concealed pistol license.

“If you’re too dangerous for Southwest (Airlines), you should be too dangerous for Smith and Wesson,” Hertel said.

The plan faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled state House. It’s also unclear whether Gov. Rick Snyder – who has opposed expanding gun access in the past, citing safety concerns – will back it.

House Speaker Tom Leonard spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said the House leader hasn’t had a chance to review the legislation yet.

Republican lawmakers amended the legislation Wednesday to allow concealed pistol carriers to carry their guns at the Grand Rapids and Detroit airports from the curb to the Transportation Security Authority checkpoint, said Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann.

Another Democrat amendment from Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights paying for bulletproof vests for teachers was shot down by Republicans.

Knezek, a former Marine who served in the Iraq War, said his combat training has shown him that the eight-hour training course needed to obtain a concealed pistol license is insufficient to prepare anyone for a mass-shooting scenario. He argued that the timing is also insensitive.

“I want to touch on just how tone-deaf this legislation is,” Knezek said in his no-vote explanation. “Yet here we are, just days after yet another church shooting – a word I still can’t even fathom exists in our lexicon – a church shooting. And we are getting ready to pass legislation regarding this. So let’s be clear and let’s be honest: In this chamber, we do not give a damn about the timing of these events because we have become numb to them entirely.

“We pretend like we have absolutely no other choice than to accept a United States of America that is more violent, more homicidal and more helpless than the rest of the civilized world,” he continued.

Devin Patrick Kelley is accused of killing 26 and wounding 20 others Sunday at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Law enforcement officials said they believe, based on the evidence, that Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders, one of whom was armed and shot him once each in the leg and torso, and crashed his car.

Kelley was able to buy weapons because the Air Force acknowledged that it didn’t enter Kelley’s criminal history — which included a court-martial for his assault of a previous wife and child — into the federal database used to conduct background checks on citizens looking to purchase a firearm. Three weapons recovered from Kelley’s body and car were purchased by the shooter.

Republicans say the legislation would help prevent disruptions in schools because those with concealed pistol licenses can already legally carry guns into Michigan schools under state law as long as they wear the weapons openly. Such an open display can cause anxiety or disrupt the learning environment, Meekhof and other supporters say.

Knollenberg said he voted against one bill because he opposes a statewide standard on gun-free zones.

“What is an acceptable carry standard in Grand Rapids or Detroit may not be an acceptable standard in Troy, where I live,” he said in a statement after the vote. “... I believe better policy would have been ... giving existing local gun-free zones – including those in our school districts – the choice of having input on this issue.”

The Senate leader said the intent is to make sure that trained gun-wielders have the opportunity to fight back if or when there’s a mass shooter on the loose. He and other supporters say “gun-free” areas are essentially “criminal empowerment zones” where mass shooters can take advantage of people who are helpless to defend themselves.

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 Senate leader said he’s open to the plan, but that he’s pushing to expand gun access in “gun free” zones first.

The plan now goes to the House.

Meekhof said he has spoken with Leonard in the past about the legislation but was not given a firm answer on his stance.

He also expressed confidence about winning Snyder’s support, although he said the two have had no discussion yet and he’s not willing to make many changes to the legislation.

Michigan State Police also has not taken a position.

“I got a little work to do with the governor,” Meekhof said. “But there’s a reason my name’s on the bill.”