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One Court of Justice Blog

December 20, 2016

COA holds that school districts are free to ban guns in schools

Local school district policies prohibiting possession of firearms on school grounds and at school-sponsored activities are not preempted by state firearm regulations, said the Michigan Court of Appeals in parallel rulings in Michigan Gun Owners, Inc. v. Ann Arbor Public Schools (No. 329632) and Michigan Open Carry, Inc. v Clio Area School District (No. 329418). In so ruling, it upheld three Ann Arbor Public Schools (“AAPS”) policies enacted in 2015, as well as a June 1996 policy promulgated by Clio Area School District (“CASD”).
 
In June 1996, CASD enacted a policy that banned visitors from possessing a firearm in any setting controlled by the school board (including on school property, at school-sponsored events, and in school-owned vehicles).  Under the CASD policy, the father of an elementary school student was denied access to his child’s school on several occasions in 2013 and 2014 while openly carrying a pistol for which he possessed a concealed pistol license. CASD threatened to summon authorities if he again attempted to enter the building with his weapon. The parent, joined by Michigan Open Carry Inc., subsequently filed a lawsuit against CASD challenging the policy.
 
Likewise, in April 2015, AAPS implemented three policies that together banned the possession of firearms on school property and at school-sponsored activities. Michigan Gun Owners Inc. and a student’s parent who possessed a concealed pistol license challenged the policies in court.
 
Both sets of plaintiffs argued that Michigan law allows the plaintiffs to openly carry a pistol on school property because state law preempts a local unit of government, in each case a local school board, from regulating the possession of firearms. CASD and AAPS respectively defended on the grounds that Michigan law confers on public school districts the right to address the safety and welfare of the students and prevent disruption to the educational environment by enacting policies such as those in question.
 
The circuit courts in each case reached opposite results—the Genesee County Circuit Court found that the legislature preempted the field of firearm regulation and barred CASD from enacting its policy, while the Washtenaw County Circuit Court found no preemption and ruled in favor of AAPS.
 
In parallel opinions released on the same day, the Court of Appeals overturned Genesee Circuit’s ruling and upheld the Washtenaw Circuit’s. It first held that MCL 28.425o(1)(a) does not expressly preempt school districts from prescribing additional firearm-related rules. MCL 28.425o(1)(a) imposes a blanket prohibition on carrying a concealed pistol on school grounds (subject to certain limited exceptions, such as a parent while in a vehicle, if dropping off or picking up their child from school). The court found that neither AAPS’s policies nor CASD’s conflicted with the statute, as the AAPS policies specifically acknowledged that MCL 28.425o controlled, while the CASD policy provided exceptions to its ban consistent with the statute.
 
Next, the court distinguished a prior case—Capital Area District Library v. Michigan Open Carry Inc.—in which it interpreted a statute (MCL 123.1102) prohibiting local units of government from regulating the ownership, sale, registration, or possession of firearms to apply to a district library, as a “quasi-municipal corporation.” Unlike a library that is established and closely supervised by one or more of the municipalities expressly included as a local unit of government, the court reasoned, a school district largely governs itself under its statutory authority. Thus, Capital Area District Library did not govern this case.
 
Finally, the court applied the four-factor Llewellyn framework and determined that the legislature did not preempt additional regulation of firearms by occupying the field. Regarding the first factor, the court found that MCL 28.425o does not expressly provide for exclusive state authority to regulate the specified area. As to the second factor of legislative history, the court found that the only items cited by the parties spoke to ordinances and municipal governments, rather than to schools. With respect to the third factor of the regulatory scheme’s pervasiveness, the court found that while firearms are pervasively regulated by the legislature, the weight of relevant statutes shows an intent to prohibit weapons in schools, not to limit a district’s ability to control the possession of weapons on school grounds. On the last factor of the desirability of preemption from a policy perspective, the court found that there is no risk, as plaintiffs suggested, that a “patchwork” of differing school policies would create “confusion” and “burden” the police and the public.
 
Thus finding the policies at issue not to be preempted, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Washtenaw Circuit Court in Michigan Gun Owners, Inc. v. Ann Arbor Public Schools and reversed the Genesee Circuit Court in Michigan Open Carry, Inc. v. Clio Area School District.
 

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