Firearms, Safety and Schools - A Legal Perspective

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Written by attorney Kevin Sutton, Partner at Lusk Albertson, PLC

Donald Trump. The Washington Post. National and state lawmakers. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, it seems everyone is wading into the conversation about firearms and safety – again. State Representative Jim Runestad recently pledged to draft legislation that will allow trained teachers to access firearms stored safely in containers on school property. Whether or not Rep. Runestad's bill gains traction is another matter – even if it is approved by the Legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder has vetoed other bills that would have expanded gun rights on school property.

That raises the following question: to what extent, if any, is a Michigan resident permitted to carry firearms on school grounds? And what about a teacher? Both Michigan and federal law have a lot to say about the possession and use of firearms in schools. Federal law makes firearm possession illegal in school zones, and, on top of that, Michigan law generally prevents a concealed pistol license (CPL) holder from carrying a concealed pistol on school property. But these laws aren't nearly as ironclad as they seem. The federal legislation doesn't apply if the person has a license from their state to carry a firearm and the state has checked to make sure the person is qualified to have the license. That's a huge loophole, applicable to everyone that has a CPL in Michigan, and it isn't closed by Michigan law. In fact, Michigan's statute contains its own host of exemptions, and nothing prohibits a teacher from becoming exempt from the general rule.

Adding more confusion to the mix, the Michigan statute applies to concealed pistols. That means you can still open carry a pistol on school property under federal and Michigan law as long as you have a valid CPL in Michigan. That goes for teachers, too, although it is easy to imagine schools, as employers, forbidding their teachers from open carrying in the workplace. But even if a school lets anyone and everyone open carry firearms on school property, it's usually a violation of federal law to actually shoot. That's because while federal law has a massive loophole for those who can carry firearms on school property, it has a much narrower set of exemptions for those who can shoot on school property. There's not much of a point in going through the trouble of arming a teacher if the teacher can't legally shoot in an emergency situation, so the school would need to make sure the federal and Michigan exemptions align.

Even if we ignore the hurdles created by federal and Michigan law, a couple of recent cases concerning the Clio and Ann Arbor school districts have pushed back on the open carry loophole. Those school districts passed policies banning CPL holders from open carrying firearms as well, and the Court of Appeals upheld the schools' policies. The Michigan Supreme Court is set to hear the cases, so we will have to stay tuned for its ultimate decision.

So, regardless of what happens to Rep. Runestad's bill, can a Michigan public school arm its teaching staff? The answer appears to be yes – so long as the school and teacher thread the needle through federal and Michigan law, and there are no school policies that get in the way. Whether threading that needle is wise is another discussion that, for now, we leave to the multitude of voices currently tossing in their two cents.