Schools Can Ban Guns, Rules Michigan Supreme Court
By Lori Higgins
The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that the Ann Arbor and Clio school districts have a right to ban guns from their schools -- in a closely watched case that deals a blow to gun rights advocates who had argued state law prohibits schools from enacting such policies.
Both districts had adopted policies that barred the possession of guns on school property and at school-sponsored events. They each were sued by separate gun rights groups. Michigan Gun Owners, along with parent Ulysses Wong, sued Ann Arbor Public Schools. Michigan Open Carry, along with parent Kenneth Herman, sued Clio Area Schools.
Friday's 4-3 ruling upholds a 2016 ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which came to the same conclusion. It came after the court held oral arguments in April. The ruling comes nearly six months after a deadly school shooting in Florida left 17 students and adults dead and sparked nationwide conversations about school safety.
"I'm very happy. I think our board will be very happy," said Fletcher Spears, superintendent of the Clio district in Genesee County. "We believe in the position that we took."
Said Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Swift: "It appears that school districts and boards of education will have the latitude to adopt policies like those we've adopted. We think that's a win for children across Michigan. We think that's a win for local boards of education and local control."
But Jim Makowski, the attorney for Michigan Gun Owners and Wong, said the decision saddens him because he believes it will do nothing to improve school safety.
"Now criminals can be confident that most school districts are not going to allow firearms on property," Makowski said. "Now we've just created a whole bunch of soft targets that are not going to be protected by an individual with a firearm."
It's an argument that doesn't sit well with Spears, a life member of the National Rifle Association and a concealed pistol license holder.
"There have to be some common sense limitations," Spears said.
Many school districts have developed policies banning guns in schools, concealed or not, saying they have the right to ensure the safety of their students.
The state law prohibits a "local unit of government" from, among other things, banning the possession of firearms. A key issue in the case was whether that applies to a school district. The Michigan Legislature defines a local unit of government as a city, village, township or county,the Michigan Court of Appeals noted in a ruling in 2016.
Here's what the Michigan Supreme Court said in Friday's ruling:
"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.
"Because an unambiguous statute showed a legislative intent not to occupy the field of firearms regulation, the districts' policies were not impliedly field-preempted."
The opinion was written by Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who was joined by Justices David Viviano, Richard Bernstein and Elizabeth Clement.
Chief Justice Stephen J. Markman wrote a dissent, arguing that the majority failed "to address the threshold inquiry of whether the school districts possessed the authority to adopt these policies in the first place."
Markman wrote: "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. Accordingly, I would reverse the judgments of the Court of Appeals."
Justices Kurtis Wilder and Brian Zahra also dissented.
Makowski said there are no options left for the court case.
"It's a state law issue. We are done. We're done with this."
But he said, "the state Legislature should take a moment to address this."
"To think that putting a sign in front of a school saying no guns are allowed is going to keep schools safe is obtuse," Makowski said. "Unfortunately the powers that be don't seem to realize or don't seem to care."
Swift, though, said the idea that guns "can come and go inside the schools ... was just counter to everything we believe and stand for, in regard to creating safe and welcoming environments in our classrooms where students can learn and grow and thrive."
That's why the district, and its board, pushed the policy.
"Safety is our first and our primary duty, even before our critical mission of teaching and learning," Swift said.
Spears said the court's ruling that Michigan schools were purposely left out of definition of "local units of government" can have broader implications and means that schools "can indeed enact policies for the safety and welfare of the children."
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