1. News

Guns are allowed at the Florida Strawberry Festival. Beer, bottled water and pets are not.

The Florida Strawberry Festival Grounds concert amphitheater on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Plant City, Fla. The Florida Strawberry Festival runs March 1-11, 2018. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
Published Feb. 28, 2018

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 or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.


  1. Defendant Reynaldo Figueroa Sanabria leaves the courtroom Wednesday during his murder trial. Sanabria is accused of the stabbing deaths of John Travlos and his girlfriend Germana Morin aboard their houseboat. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria faces the death penalty in the slayings of John Travlos and Germana “Geri” Morin.
  2. [SKIP O'ROURKE   | Times]
    It’s unclear if there will be any proposed changes to this method for measuring teachers’ impact on their students’ performance, despite complaints.
  3. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The teen sent texts naming two classmates and a faculty member as targets, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. He did not have access to guns, however.
  4. Zephyrhillls police Officer Timothy Alan Murr II, 33, was arrested Monday on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence. The police department suspended him with pay pending the completion of the criminal investigation. Pasco County Sheriff's Office
    The officer is accused of grabbing a woman’s wrists. The Zephyrhills Police Department suspended him with pay.
  5. This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm. Florida State University professor Wenyuan Fan said the storm probably created "stormquakes" offshore in the gulf, too. [Photo courtesy of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration]] NOAA
    Analysis of a decade of records shows hurricanes causing seismic activity on continental shelf
  6. Ken Jones, CEO of Third Lake Capital, has sold WingHouse for $18 million to a Jacksonville restaurant company. [Times 2016]
    Tampa’s Third Like Capital now major shareholder in restaurant’s new owners.
  7. Mama is available for adoption. Hernando County Animal Services
    Hernando County shelter pet offerings
  8. The Don CeSar Hotel is caught up in a lawsuit over liquid nitrogen being served and causing injuries at its restaurant. [Times (2011)]
    They say the other side has made inflammatory and misleading statements to the media.
  9. This Mobil Coast gas station at 16055 State Road 52 in Land O Lakes is one of 10 cited in a Florida Department of Environmental Protection lawsuit where inspectors said they found lapses in regularly required tests, maintenance, documentation or other oversight by Brandon-based Automated Petroleum and Energy or its related companies. On Wednesday, the company said the station had already been put back in compliance with state regulations. (Photo via Google street view) Google street view
    The Florida Department of Environmental Protection contends Automated Petroleum and Energy Company failed to do required maintenance or testing at 10 gas stations in the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
  10. FILE - In this Wednesday, July 10, 2019 file photo, 6-year-old elementary school students go through the lunch line in the school's cafeteria in Paducah, Ky. Nearly a million students could lose their automatic eligibility for free school lunches under a Trump administration proposal that's expected to reduce the number of people who get food stamps. In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released an analysis finding as many as 982,000 children could be affected by the change. ELLEN O'NAN  |  AP
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released details of an analysis that found that as many as 982,000 children could be affected by the change.