Schools can ban guns, Michigan Supreme Court rules

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
The Michigan Supreme Court.

Lansing — Michigan schools can ban guns on their property, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday, upholding policies that Ann Arbor and Clio districts have defended as common-sense safety measures designed to prevent disruptions.

In a split decision, majority justices said that while the Michigan Legislature has the authority to pre-empt school districts from adopting gun bans, it “has not done so here.”

Justice Bridget McCormack, a Democratic-nominated jurist and lead author on the majority opinion, called the closely watched Ann Arbor and Clio cases “straightforward."

“The Legislature has, expressly, restricted some but not all local governments from regulating firearms,” she wrote. “Schools in particular are not on the preempted list, quite possibly for reasons not difficult to imagine.”

McCormack added: “Of course, if the Legislature in its wisdom sees fit to allow open firearms on all school grounds, no matter what local school districts may variously desire, it can say so."

The seven justices heard oral arguments over the gun bans in April amid a national debate over school safety and deadly shootings. The cases have broad implications for the ability of districts across the state to regulate firearms.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack

Ann Arbor and Clio district policies, previously upheld by a Michigan Court of Appeals panel, were designed to prevent owners from openly carrying guns on school grounds. State law prohibits concealed weapons in schools but does not expressly prohibit permit holders from openly carrying.

Michigan Open Carry Inc. and Michigan Gun Owners Inc. sued over the policies, arguing state law pre-empts local units of government from banning firearms. But the districts defended their rules, arguing state law tasks them with ensuring the safety of students.

Both cases hinged on a debate over state law. Specifically, a statute that prohibits local units of government from enacting or enforcing any ordinance related to firearms but defines a local unit of government as a city, village or township — not a school.

Ann Arbor's board banned all guns on public school property and at school-sponsored activities in 2015 after a resident openly carried a sidearm into a high school choir concert. Under the rules, bringing any gun into the school constitutes an emergency, triggering evacuation or other response strategies.

Superintendent Jeanice Swift called Friday's ruling a “victory for the children of Michigan” that ensures local school boards will be able to choose gun policies that best fit their community.

In Ann Arbor, "we believe that the possession of a gun in school, other than by sworn officers, runs counter to what we are hard-wired to do as educators: keep our students, staff, and families safe and ensure a warm, welcoming environment where our students may grow, learn and thrive at school,” Swift said in a statement.  

In a separate case, Michigan Open Carry Inc. and parent Kenneth Herman sued the Clio Area School District after he was repeatedly denied entrance to his child’s school while openly carrying a pistol in 2013 and 2014.

Michigan Gun Owners attorney Jim Makowski said he was “disappointed and sad” about the Supreme Court ruling, which he argued will ultimately make schools less safe and make students "soft targets” for potential shooters who disregard anti-gun rules.

“There’s now no question that there’s not going to be anyone armed with the ability to protect students in those schools," Makowski said, urging Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature to consider changing state laws. “Everyone wants school safety, but we decided not to bury our heads in the sand and believe that school safety is a sign on the front door banning firearms."

A three-judge appeals panel, in a pair of unanimous December 2016 decisions, sided with Ann Arbor and Clio. The panel's opinion pointed to at least 26 state laws with specific language referencing “weapon free school zones.”

The Supreme Court on Friday upheld that ruling.

Chief Justice Stephen Markman disagreed with the majority opinion. In a dissent that he said relied on “the clear language and logic of the laws at issue,” Markman argued that state law allows concealed pistol permit holders to openly carry guns on school property.

“Because school districts do not possess the authority to adopt policies that conflict with state law and the policies at issue here clearly conflict with state law, these policies are plainly invalid,” Markman wrote.

But Markman’s reasoning was “flawed,” said David Viviano, a fellow Republican-nominated justice who said the dissent was premised on a “misreading” of state laws that provide only limited exceptions for open carry weapons.

Viviano joined McCormack in the majority opinion, along with Justices Richard Bernstein, the court's other Democrat, and Beth Clement, whom Gov. Rick Snyder appointed in November 2017.

Republican-nominated Justices Kurtis Wilder and Brian Zahra both concurred with the majority in part but said they wanted to hold more arguments about whether the district policies conflict with laws enacted by the Legislature.

“The conflict-preemption issue presented by these cases is one that will surely be relitigated; it is just a question of when,” Wilder wrote.

(517) 371-3662