Michigan's legislature set off a vociferous debate by passing a bill last Thursday to allow licensed pistols in schools, churches and college facilities -- the day before the tragic shooting in Connecticut. But university leaders in the state are largely staying out of the argument over whether Gov. Rick Snyder should sign the legislation, because they say a last-minute addition to it will give them legal authority to bar such weapons.
Senate Bill 59  would allow people with a state Concealed Pistol License to earn the right to carry a gun in what are currently pistol-free zones. By taking extra training, gun owners would be legally allowed to carry concealed weapons into public areas like schools or stadiums. With the change in concealed carry laws, the bill would also ban openly carrying weapons in these pistol-free zones, currently legal for the proper permit.
At one point, the bill was written to give all public and private property owners the power to designate their spaces as gun-free, so a school or church could have decided to ban guns. But in the end, only public colleges and universities were given the authority to enact their own ordinances. As a result, on most campuses, the bill won’t change much, higher education officials say.
“The legislation before the governor will not have any significant impact at Michigan State University,” a spokesman for the university said. “The bill permits certain colleges and universities to enforce ordinances that regulate concealed pistols. Most of our campus is designated a pistol-free zone, and we will still have the authority to keep it that way even if the legislation is signed.”
Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, of the State Universities of Michigan, said that because of the clause giving universities the power to make and enforce ordinances, higher education leaders in the state would not actively lobby the governor as he decides whether to sign the bill. Originally, the Presidents Council opposed the bill.
“We did get our language, and we’re comfortable with the language we have, but that does not mean that we support gun expansions anywhere,” he said. “We’re just going to wait and see what the governor does.”
If the governor signs the bill, the individual universities will have the authority to decide if and how to determine and enforce pistol-free zones. Boulus said he suspects, however, that there will be a collective effort among university leaders to create and maintain gun-free campuses.
Student leaders are divided on the issue, and some question the universities' assertions that they would be exempt if the bill becomes law.
An editorial published  in the Michigan State student newspaper in April condemns concealed carry, arguing that it won’t make campuses safer and that it will make the students who do not want to go through training to get a gun permit feel less safe.
But Michigan Students for Concealed Carry, the state branch of a national organization, takes the opposite stance.
“Pistol-free zones are only obeyed by those who obey the laws. Criminals make a business of refusing to obey laws,” said Reid Smith, state director for the group.
Smith believes that allowing licensed gun carriers with extra training to bring concealed weapons into “pistol-free zones” will make those areas safer by allowing people to defend themselves.
“We’re talking about people who are already licensed, so they’ve been cleared to carry firearms,” he said. “They can carry a lot of places without incident, so we don’t really see any justification for why someone who crosses an imaginary unmarked line onto a college campus shouldn’t defend themselves.”
“It was put in there to please whoever wanted some sort of exemption,” he said, referring to the clause about university ordinances. “If there were a court ruling…the whole thing is out the window.”
Still, university officials – at all public institutions – maintain that their ability to keep campuses gun-free will be protected.
"We believe that the amended legislation would allow the state's public universities, including EMU, to set their own policies about weapons on campus,” Leigh Greden, executive director for Government and Community Relations at Eastern Michigan University wrote in an e-mail. “If the governor signs the legislation, I expect that our policies – which already ban possession of weapons on campus – will remain unchanged, but we'll do a more thorough review at that time."
As of Monday evening, it was unclear whether or not the governor would sign the bill, though he had vowed  to consider it carefully, in light of Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Conn. Boulus said he suspects the governor might veto it, because he had been in favor of the clause, eventually dropped, that gave every public entity the ability to enforce its own gun restrictions. Smith said he’s not sure what will happen, or whether Friday’s events will have an impact.
“It doesn’t change the basic politics of the situation,” he said, noting that his group does not take a stance on gun-free zones in K-12 schools. “I think it really exemplifies the point we’re trying to make, which is that criminals don’t obey gun-free zones.”