ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A gun openly carried by a spectator at a school concert in 2015 has turned into a major legal case as the Michigan Supreme Court considers whether the state’s public schools can trump the Legislature and adopt their own restrictions on firearms.
The case from Ann Arbor has been on the court’s docket for more than a year. But arguments set for Wednesday are getting extra attention in the wake of a Florida school shooting in February that killed 17.
There’s no dispute that Michigan law bars people from possessing a gun inside a weapon-free school zone. But there’s a wrinkle: Someone with a concealed pistol permit can enter school property with a gun that’s openly holstered.
Though rare, it happened three years ago at a choir concert at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, scaring teens, staff and spectators. The school board responded by banning all guns, with exceptions for police.
“If a student were to bring a gun into a school, that would be worthy of an expulsion,” said Jeanice Kerr Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor schools. “So why would it be different for other folks? … What this case is about is local communities having a choice.”
Separately, the Clio district, north of Flint, has a similar policy. The Supreme Court is hearing challenges from gun owners in both communities.
Gun-rights advocates argue that local governments, including elected school boards, can’t step into an area reserved for the Michigan Legislature under state law. They point to a Lansing-area library whose ban on the open display of guns was struck down by the state appeals court in 2012.
But in Ann Arbor and Clio, another three-judge panel at the appeals court said schools are in a different category and have freedom to further restrict guns. The districts won that round.
Ken Herman, a paramedic and gun-owning parent who sued the Clio district, believes the appeals court got it wrong. In a filing at the Supreme Court, his attorney said schools have a duty to keep students safe, but lawmakers have “chosen to reserve the power to regulate the possession of firearms.”
Herman, 36, said he carries a gun for protection wherever it’s allowed. He said fears would be eased if more adults educated kids about proper gun ownership.
“If adults are OK with it, there are no alarm bells,” Herman said. “If they overreact and yell ‘fire’ every time a law-abiding citizen is carrying, they’re sending the wrong message.”
He said many Clio parents with gun permits would be willing to volunteer at schools and add an extra layer of security.
“If something were to happen and I didn’t possess the tools to intercept to some degree, I’m not sure I could live with that burden,” Herman said.
Students are paying attention to the cases. Paige Tar, a junior at Northville High School in suburban Detroit, is part of a statewide student group, Engage 18, which favors giving schools authority over guns. She said she’s been involved in stressful discussions over what to do during a shooting.
“My point is the school is turned into some sort of sick war game where the goal is to survive,” Tar said.
The state’s highest court has allowed outside groups to file briefs, including the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Washington-based group said Michigan schools must have the power to set safety policies.
But another organization, the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Ownership, said schools must cede some ground to the Legislature.
“Firearm possession, and the right of self-defense that is inseparable from it, demand uniform treatment,” the group said.