Michigan concealed gun bills spark debate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Republican state House Speaker Tom Leonard is backing controversial legislation that would make Michigan a “right to carry” state by scrapping permit and training requirements for concealed handguns.

Large crowds filled the overflow rooms for hearing on bills to make Michigan a "right to carry" state, and to scrap the concealed gun permit.

Second Amendment supporters and gun control advocates flooded a legislative hearing on the bills Tuesday, prompting House staff to open two overflow rooms to accommodate crowds.

The proposal would eliminate criminal penalties for those who carry concealed pistols without permits, effectively lifting the requirement in most parts of the state.

Critics argue the proposal could make Michigan communities less safe, in part because gun owners currently must complete a safety training course or class to qualify for a concealed carry permit.

“To put a firearm in the hands of someone with no required training is absolutely absurd,” said David Hiller of the Fraternal Order of Police, a law enforcement group opposing the legislation.

Michigan law does not require permits to openly carry firearms, and Leonard, R-DeWitt, believes concealed pistol permit requirements “may be outdated” and confusing to the public, said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

“It’ll work its way through the committee process, but he thinks it’s a good package of bills,” he told The Detroit News.

Leonard’s support gives early momentum to legislation that sparked more than two hours of intense debate in the House Judiciary Committee but did not see a vote. An additional hearing is expected next week.

Concealed pistol permits cost $100 to obtain, in addition to a fingerprint fee, and $115 to renew every four years. Training classes can cost hundreds of dollars.

State permit fees amount to a “coat tax” on responsible owners who want to cover up their pistols rather than openly carry them, gun rights advocates argued. Michigan law does not expressly allow open carry, but courts consider it legal because there is no prohibition in state statute.

“One millimeter of clothing can make a difference between a criminal act and a legal act,” said sponsoring Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, who said permit costs can limit access for low-income residents. “We already know criminals are not paying fees, taking classes or waiting for approvals to come in the mail.”

The legislation would not eliminate required background checks for firearm purchases or modify rules for so-called gun-free zones like schools where concealed pistols are not currently allowed, she noted.

But the proposal would allow individuals with certain misdemeanor convictions to carry concealed weapons even though their criminal records prohibit them from obtaining a state permit.

“Under current Michigan law, people recently convicted of stalking, criminal sexual conduct, indecent expose, certain drug crimes and more than one drunk driving offense do not qualify to receive concealed pistol licenses,” said Scott Nichols, a former state police trooper now with the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“It works. In the most recent year of data available, the Michigan State Police denied nearly 2,500 concealed pistol licenses to people who were disqualified from obtaining one.”

State Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, noted Michigan also prohibits concealed pistol permits for anyone who is the subject of a personal protection order, a provision intended to protect victims of domestic abuse.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a concealed pistol bill in early 2015 because it would have required authorities to issue permits to the subjects of personal protection orders unless the court orders expressly prohibited them from possessing a gun.

Representatives from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups dismissed similar concerns Tuesday, repeatedly noting Michigan pistol owners who do not meet all concealed permit requirements can already openly carry holstered weapons here.

The hearing featured an elaborate demonstration by Tom Lambert, president and CEO of Michigan Carry Inc., who pulled out an unloaded handgun to show legislators the additional steps open carry owners must take to transport their weapons in cars.

Michigan law allows permit holders to drive with pistols in their car, but open carry owners must put them in a case and store them in their trunk, Lambert said. He argued Michigan inadvertently forces open carry owners to take their weapons out of their holsters, which is when accidental firings most often occur.

The legislation would allow “law-abiding citizens to carry in the manner they chose, that’s best for their specific situation, not anyone else,” Lambert said.

The proposal would align Michigan with at least 12 other states that already have some sort of “constitutional carry” law that allow citizens to carry concealed weapons without permits, according to Brenden Boudreau of the National Association for Gun Rights.

State Rep. Jim Runestad, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he expects to hold at least another hour of testimony on the legislative package next week, and then allow at least another week of deliberation before a vote. Runestead, R-White Lake, said he’s leaning towards a “yes” vote but does not want to rush his colleagues.