PLANT CITY — You can’t buy a beer at the Florida Strawberry Festival. You can’t bring a bottle of water or a dog that’s not a service animal.
You can, however, sit in the front row of a Reba McEntire concert with a Smith & Wesson holstered to your chest.
You can ride the Space Roller with a handgun. You can meet the Strawberry Queen with a handgun. You can stand atop the festival’s new $5.5 million concert amphitheater and look down on the stage, midway or basketball courts at neighboring Tomlin Middle School, all with a concealed carry permit and a gun you brought from home.
"We do not encourage you to bring your weapon on grounds," said Strawberry Festival president Paul Davis. "But if you have a legal right to do it, then you can do it."
Florida’s gun laws are drawing nationwide scrutiny following a mass shooting that killed 17 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In recent years, concert and festival security has become a major industry issue after attacks that killed dozens in Paris, Las Vegas and Manchester, U.K.
Yet the Strawberry Festival, which opens Thursday and draws a half-million guests every year — including some 100,000 for its concerts alone — is literally and figuratively sticking to its guns.
"If a gun is found through any type of security check, we only verify that they have a right to carry it or not," said Cpl. Larry McKinnon of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which staffs off-duty officers at the festival gate.
The Strawberry Festival’s gun policy is not posted on its website, and does not appear to be widely known outside the fair industry.
Among those unaware of the policy: Hillsborough County Public Schools. Tomlin Middle and Bryan Elementary both allow Strawberry Festival parking on their grounds, with proceeds benefitting the schools. But per Florida law, concealed weapons may not be carried on any school property. After learning of the Strawberry Festival’s handgun policy, district spokesman Grayson Kamm said the schools would look into posting signs informing anyone who parks there of the policy.
"If you want to park at Bryan or Tomlin, you can’t have a gun," Kamm said. "If you have a concealed carry permit, you should know the law. You should know that you can’t carry it at a school. That said, it’s very smart for us to remind people of that."
The Strawberry Festival’s concealed-carry policy is in line with similar agriculture-based events across Florida, including the Florida State Fair. Such events are considered public spaces and must abide by the state’s concealed carry law, which permits licensed firearms holders to bring in handguns.
The Strawberry Festival may be a community-run nonprofit running on its own land — but as a state-licensed "public fair," it is subject to the same regulations as the State Fair, which in 2012 ended its no-concealed-weapons policy, under threat of legal action from gun-rights activists. If the festival tried to bar concealed weapons, it could lose certain state protections and open itself to a lawsuit.
"Fair associations are unique statutory creatures," said Lance Fuchs, attorney for the Florida Federation of Fairs and Livestock Shows. "They could lose their fair charter or management team ... and could face civil and criminal penalties because they’d be knowingly violating the law."
What separates the Strawberry Festival from the State Fair and other events is its high-profile concert lineup, which in years past has drawn acts like Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks and Luke Bryan. No other major venue in Tampa Bay allows firearms, from Amalie Arena to the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre to Ruth Eckerd Hall to the Dallas Bull. Anyone attempting to enter with a gun, and in some cases even a knife, will be turned away.
Bill Edwards, the St. Petersburg entrepreneur whose company operates the city-owned Mahaffey Theater, has a concealed carry permit, but doesn’t bring or allow guns in the theater or Al Lang Stadium.
"I leave mine in the car, where it belongs," he said. "Would you want to go someplace where somebody is carrying firearms? With your kids or your family to a cultural event? I can’t imagine. Look at what’s going on in this world."
In January, there were 96,606 concealed-carry permit holders in Hillsborough County, and another 50,789 just across the county line in Polk. Concealed carry licenses only apply to handguns, not long guns and assault rifles used in many mass shootings, like the AR-15.
On Monday, the Times asked more than 20 headlining acts at this year’s Strawberry Festival about the policy. Representatives for five responded: Justin Moore, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lee Greenwood, Engelbert Humperdinck and Charley Pride. All were unavailable or declined to comment. None had changed their plans to play Plant City.
"We’re not out here making a political statement," said Davis, a retired Hillsborough County Sheriff’s major. "There’s a side that says you’re more safe with guns, and there’s a side that says you’re not. We’re not taking a side. We’re doing our best to comply with state law and our regulations."
Music festivals that are not beholden to Florida’s public fair laws, such as Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, typically forbid weapons of any kind.
"From our perspective, that was never a consideration," said David Cox, executive director of the Gasparilla Music Festival. "We just don’t want that. We want people to be carefree and enjoying themselves."
The Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence has opposed the right to carry concealed weapons in public gathering spaces like churches and college campuses. Co-Chairwoman Patricia Brigham sees an event like the Strawberry Festival as a "gray area."
"There’s always a risk when you carry a concealed weapon into a big public event like that, especially one with a lot of children," she said.
Scott Barrish, a Republican activist and gun-rights advocate from Valrico who was involved in the State Fair’s 2012 decision, didn’t know about the festival’s policy.
"I commend them for making that stand," said Barrish, 42, who hasn’t been to the Strawberry Festival in years, but who carries his gun everywhere it’s allowed. "More public venues should make that same stand."
In 2016, the festival instituted security wanding and bag checks, a measure Davis said was met with "overwhelming support." This year, they’ll add walk-through metal detectors known as magnetometers. The festival’s perimeter is under 24-hour surveillance. And the absence of alcohol means a decreased potential for drunken fights.
"I understand with all the gun stuff that’s going on right now, I think everybody is kind of concerned about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there," he said. "Depending on which side you’re on, I think everybody’s in favor of some strong checks, some stronger checks, and things of that nature. I just think when you come here, we need to just follow the letter of the law."
Still, Davis at times has "mixed emotions" about the policy, because he can envision a scenario in which things might go wrong. Undercover police officers patrol the festival grounds, he said, "and all of our uniform guys know who they are." If a guest starts trouble and needs to be subdued, the undercover officer might dive in and, if necessary, draw a weapon.
"They’re not going to get shot by a policeman, hopefully," he said. "But a good citizen might not know that that’s a good guy, you know what I’m saying? That’s when you worry about those kinds of things."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.