Sorting out Michigan's gun laws

Dec 21, 2012

“No guns” is a pretty simple and common policy in Michigan schools.

Students are expelled for bringing firearms.  But Michigan law is less clear on what schools can do when adults show up with a firearm.

It’s pretty unusual, but it occasionally happens.         

Now, I’m not talking about an armed aggressor, but a parent or some other adult visitor who carries a weapon – either concealed or openly.         

Like I said, it’s rare. But it happened at an elementary school this past October in Birmingham—in Oakland County. A parent showed up at school with a holstered pistol strapped around his waist.

“There was no confrontation and that’s my preference,” said Daniel Nerad, Birmingham Superintendent.

“In these kinds of circumstances, I do not expect our school staff to be sorting out whether a person has a license for that.”

Nerad’s willing to talk about the incident in general terms, but not details like which school, or why the parent was there.

He said the parent was allowed to finish his business, which was quickly wrapped up. Later, the Birmingham Board of Education sent the parent a letter warning him not to show up at the school in the future with a gun.

Nerad said the district’s policy going forward is to call the police if a parent shows up with a gun.

“Society is asking school people to do a great deal as it is. The business of educating children is very complex and time consuming, and we have to treat every one of these situations with the professional expertise that law enforcement has and that’s what we’ll do – we‘ll call law enforcement,” said Nerad.

There are at least three different state laws that deal specifically with where guns can be carried.

"The reason why you can legally open carry in Michigan isn't because there's a law granting you permission to do that. It's because there's no law that actually prohibits open carry," he said.

Sergeant Chris Hawkins is with the Michigan State Police.

“It can be confusing not only for well-intentioned, law-abiding citizens, but also for law enforcement,” he said.

Hawkins said there are also laws against trespassing and brandishing a firearm. Then there is also the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, and at least one Michigan Attorney General’s opinion that comes into play.

Law enforcement officers and retired law enforcement have a lot of latitude to carry concealed firearms even into otherwise weapons-free zones.

So do judges.

Now, here’s a list of places where civilians cannot carry concealed guns:

  • school property
  • daycares
  • sports arenas or any entertainment venue that seats more than 2,500 people
  • bars and taverns
  • places of worship
  • hospitals
  • college dorms and classrooms
  • the Detroit casinos

Anyone who can legally possess a firearm is allowed to openly carry a gun in places where they are not prohibited. State Police Sergeant Chris Hawkins explains.

“The reason why you can legally open carry in Michigan isn’t because there’s a law granting you permission to do that. It’s because there’s no law that actually prohibits open carry,” he said.

Now, here’s something that may be a bit confusing.

Only law enforcement may carry a concealed weapon into a school.

A civilian who does not have a concealed pistol permit may not carry in a school. But someone with a concealed pistol permit may legally openly carry a gun into a school.

It’s one of those weird ways the gun laws play together.     

But that does not mean a concealed gun licensee automatically gets to open-carry into a school.

“Our advice has been and will continue to be that schools are gun-free zones. That means no weapons of any kind are allowed on school property,” said Brad Biladeu of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

He said trespassing laws may allow principals or other administrators to say “no” to adults with guns in schools.

"Our advice has been and will continue to be that schools are gun-free zones. That means no weapons of any kind are allowed on school property," said Brad Biladeu of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

That authority is at least implied in the federal ban on guns in schools, Biladeu said. But none of that has been tested in court.

Daniel Nerad—the Birmingham schools superintendent—said “no guns” remains his district’s policy. 

“Let’s also keep in mind that we take serious, significant discipline action toward students any time that’s a concern and I’m going to err on the side of extreme caution in supporting our schools as weapon-free areas,” said Nerad.

Nerad, other school administrators, and law enforcement officials say it would be useful for the Legislature to simplify Michigan’s gun laws and clarify what’s allowed.

The vetoed bill was supposed to do that. But Governor Snyder wasn’t willing to accept concealed guns in schools as the price.

For more on the state's gun laws see this explainer from the Michigan State Police.