TRAVERSE CITY — Questions remain after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that two school districts have the right to ban guns from their schools.
In what looked to be a clear win for the Michigan Association of School Boards as well as gun control advocates, the state Supreme Court on Friday ruled 4-3 in favor of Ann Arbor and Clio school district policies that barred individuals from openly carrying a firearm on school grounds even if they held an exempted concealed pistol license.
Many saw the ruling as a green light for districts to pass their own similar legislation without fear of litigation. That likely is not the case, according to attorney and firearms law professor Steve Dulan.
Dulan, who also serves on the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners board of directors, said the ruling failed to adequately address why the school boards’ policies did not fall under the umbrella of conflict preemption, which gives state policies precedence over those of smaller governing bodies. Determining whether the policies were conflict-preempted was “unnecessary,” according to the court’s written opinion.
“It was a missed opportunity to clarify the issue,” Dulan said. “It looks like schools are allowed to make policies, however, there’s an open question if those policies are in direct conflict state law — and that issue has yet to be re-litigated.”
The court did rule on field preemption, stating school districts are not defined as a “local unit of government” and as such are not subject to their policies being overruled by the state. Michigan law prohibits a local unit of government from banning the possession of firearms.
“The Legislature has the authority to preempt school districts from adopting policies like the ones at issue that regulate firearms on school property. However, not only has the Legislature not done so, it has expressed its intent not to preempt such regulation,” the court’s opinion read.
Brad Banasik, legal counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said the court's ruling hasn't really changed anything other than supporting and upholding the authority of school districts to adopt such policies.
"We respect the court's decision and following their rules and precedent, but on the same token we certainly don't want additional lawsuits filed against school districts," Banasik said. "We believe there is no place for firearms on school property, outside of the very limited exceptions that are included in the law."
Although it won’t be a violation of state law for an individual openly carry a firearm on school property, districts can enforce their policies through trespass violations or other ordinances regulating unauthorized persons on school grounds.
Nick Ceglarek, Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District superintendent, said there has been some confusion around the law and that there is still some trepidation despite the court’s decision.
“Districts are always cautious in establishing policy that may run counter to established laws. When there’s question or indecision, we rely on court rulings,” Ceglarek said. “Each local district is going to have to decide how they’re going to approach this. Even if there is a chance a district is opening itself up to litigation, I think there’s substantial cover based on the Supreme Court’s ruling.”
Justice Kurtis Wilder said in his dissent that it is only a question of when — not if — this matter is brought before the court again.
“In order to fully resolve the ultimate issue before us ... it is necessary to determine whether those policies are in conflict with one or more statutes enacted by the Legislature,” Wilder wrote. “The majority has provided only partial guidance and left lingering doubts.”
Traverse City Area Public Schools dealt with the issue in 2014 when someone attended a board meeting legally carrying a firearm.
“When you see someone carrying a gun into a meeting, it raises your awareness level and then you come to grips with the fact that it’s legal,” TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma said. “What can you do? There’s not a lot of discussion to have at that point.”
Soma has been outspoken against allowing guns on school grounds, but he said the current policies have worked out well for both sides.
“We’ve kind of settled into a pretty reasonable spot in having established a policy and practice that was respectful of the laws on the books and did the best job of creating a safe and secure environment,” he said. “Who wants to keep getting into those kind of battles when we’ve found a reasonable and respectful place that advocates on both sides have accepted?”