Imagine a 45-year-old man walking down the sidewalk of Traverse City’s Front Street or Petoskey’s Mitchell Street, holding an AR-15 in his right hand, the muzzle pointed toward the sky.
Shoppers might stare, wondering, “Is he ready to open fire or just making a gun rights statement? Am I safe? Should I run?” In this hypothetical case, the man might have bought the semi-automatic rifle from a neighbor with no background check or borrowed it from a friend. Either way, his actions would be legal, as long as he didn’t violate federal requirements* and wasn’t “brandishing” the weapon.
Welcome to the weirdness of gun laws that are often confusing, defy logic and has the local community in an uproar.
The gun rights issue entered the realm of furious debate here since a published report told of a parent who took a handgun into a Traverse City school board meeting months earlier.
It also raised other issues, such as the ability of gun owners to open carry or conceal handgun carry (with a concealed pistol license) in parks, at the beach, on downtown streets and into most government buildings.
Grand Traverse Sheriff Tom Bensley said he would question the wisdom of walking down Front Street with a rifle, but confirmed it’s legal.
“Do you need it for your personal protection? Come on,” he said. “Let’s use common sense. But you can do it. I’m not saying I’m for it or against it, but it makes it very difficult for us when things aren’t crystal clear.”
Local gun rights activists like Trever Floyd said it wouldn’t make sense for people to open carry downtown, but he values the right to do it.
“I don’t want to scare people,” said Floyd, who does carry a handgun most everywhere, including restaurants and stores.
“The public’s eyes have been covered for such a long time and it’s nice to hear people say, ‘You can do that?’ Yes, it’s our right. But you have to understand the gun laws, and they’re complicated.”
Tom Killman, who works the counter of an area gun shop, said most people open carry only when they think it’s necessary for personal protection.
“Is it necessary to open carry in downtown Traverse or downtown Detroit? Maybe downtown Detroit; it’s a different situation. But it may not be necessary in Traverse City.”
SORTING OUT THE LAW
Interlochen resident Andy Marek, who is running for Grand Traverse County Com missioner, said he didn’t carry a holstered handgun into a school board meeting in January for publicity.
“I had no intention of making a point. I carry it for personal protection,” he told the Express in an interview at Burger King as he wore a holstered handgun under his suit jacket. “If something ever happens, I want to make sure I have all the tools available to defend myself.”
Marek said he’s lost friends over the incident—even his dad questioned him about it—and received warnings from police and Traverse City Area Public Schools officials that he’d be arrested for disturbing the peace if he ever entered a school (but not board meetings) with a gun.
But TCAPS has since changed its position. Marek wouldn’t get arrested for disturbing the peace if he were going about his normal business, but he might well trigger a lockdown and a call to police if he entered a school building.
As it stands right now, TCAPS will go into lockdown anytime someone enters a school building with a handgun, including an open carrying CPL holder, said Paul Soma, who takes the helm of TCAPS as interim superintendent on July 1.
“It’s unsettling to staff, frightening to children, and they are potentially dangerous. Will there be a lockdown? Yes. No question,” Soma said.
Soma blames the initial confusion on gun laws that lack common sense--allowing those with a CPL to open carry in schools, but not to conceal carry.
“Schools should be treated as gun-free zones,” Soma said.
This week, he and other school administrators will meet with local law enforcement officials to hash out the lockdown policy.
“As we stand right now, there will be a lockdown,” Soma said.
Open carry is also allowed in Northwestern Michigan College’s hallways, classrooms, and dormitories, said NMC spokesman Andy Dolan.
Grand Traverse Sheriff Bensley said he recently held a meeting with city police officials to talk about how to respond to schools when they get a call that someone has walked in with a gun.
“We have many different school districts and 60 different cops that have to respond in the same way,” he said.
DESENSITIZE THE PUBLIC
The aim of gun advocates is to de-sensitize the public to guns and to show that gun owners are average people, not the image you get from the media, Marek said.
Marek and others dine and open carry in restaurants every couple of months, after first getting permission from the restaurant owner. They also picnic in parks where guns (but not alcohol) are welcome. In fact, an open carry event is planned for July 19 at Traverse City’s Elmwood Township Park from 2-5 p.m.
Open carry demonstrations aren’t new, said Betsy Coffia, a Democrat running for the 104th state representative seat.
“I’m going to quote former Governor Ronald Reagan: ‘There is no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.’ He said that in May 1967 when two dozen Black Panther Party members came into the [California] state house to demonstrate their right to open carry their rifles. They were protesting a gun control bill.”
Coffia said she doesn’t want to take anyone’s gun away, but believes laws need to reflect “reasonable, sensible, and sane respect for other human beings,” particularly in states with “stand your ground” laws.
“Where do your (gun) rights bump up against someone else’s rights to not feel threatened and afraid?” Part of the confusion lays in the fact that Michigan has no open carry law. When gunfree zones were established about a dozen years ago, the law didn’t explicitly ban open carry. Courts have interpreted it to mean that CPL holders can open carry in these zones—usually carrying the gun in an exposed holster, but not conceal carry.
“Classrooms and dormitories are very sensitive areas,” said Rep. Andy Schor, D- Lansing. “That’s why the law was passed 12 years ago. The legislature said we shouldn’t carry guns there. We don’t want a parent or any other person with a gun in some sections of our schools unless it’s a security or police officer.”
Schor proposed a bill that would also ban open carry in these sensitive zones.
“It went nowhere,” he said.
“HIDING IN THE CORNER DOESN’T WORK”
Attornery David Bieganowski, a gun law expert and CPL instructor, has appeared frequently as a guest on WTCM-FM with his training partner Tony Romanowski, a Grand Traverse County deputy. Both are former Marines.
They believe school staff should be trained and armed, and are urging the public to call school board members to sway school policy. Door locks have limited use and aren’t as effective as a firearm in halting a shooter, Bieganowski said.
“After all these incidents, we’ve learned the only thing that stops a bad guy is a good guy with a gun,” Bieganowski said. “As soon as someone turned up and confronted, (the shooter), they killed themselves. All these door locks and shields don’t work. Hiding in the corner doesn’t work. You need someone on school, properly trained—a number of states have done that.”
Romanowski circulated a petition to support the selection and training of school employees to conceal carry on school property.
Fifty-three of the 55 deputies asked to sign did so, Bieganowski said.
Marek agrees that an armed person on a school campus can save lives because seconds can translate into lost lives.
“The average response for a police officer to arrive is four to 15 minutes. Sandy Hook was four minutes. Had the principal been able to stand between (the shooter) and the kids with a firearm, it would have stopped it right there.”
WHO’S THE BAD GUY? RAISE YOUR HAND
The TCAPS school board recently voted to spend nearly $500,000 for boot locks that can barricade every classroom in the district. Facebook responses ranged from strong support to critics questioning the large expenditure. Many suggested arming school staff.
But Soma said lockdowns are effective; if students are led and locked out of harm’s way, they don’t get killed.
“Look at what happened in Oregon. That kid was ready to go off, kill a lot of people. He had bulletproof armor. He was ready for war. He got one person and himself too. Why? It wasn’t because people were confronting him; it was their lockdown procedures worked. If police walk into a hallway and there’s an active bad guy and an active good guy, the officer now has to identify which is which. ‘Can we ask you a few questions first, and then you can get back into position behind the garbage can?’” he said.
There are a number of other reasons that schools are dangerous places for guns -- concealed or otherwise -- said Lynn Larson, who is a former Traverse City high school teacher, a former NRA member, but also a member of Moms Against Guns.
“If I were still in the classroom, I’d be so angry that my life is being taken away from me by the NRA. I’m just so passionate about it,” she said. “Number one, if you’re in an elementary school, it’s terrifying to an elementary student. Number two, I assume it’s a person with a concealed handgun permit. Elementary kids are big huggers and very curious. I can just imagine someone with a gun, maybe it’s somebody’s dad, and he has a gun on him, it goes off, and a kid is hurt.
Arming school staff, she said, is also a bad idea. Students could overtake a teacher and steal the gun. Yet guns locked in a secure area would delay a quick response, she said.
“Someone with an AK-47 will have my students dead and gone before I can draw my gun and shoot them back. It’s just insane.”
Marek said he once open carried a gun into a parent/teacher conference and the teacher didn’t react negatively (he thought it a wiser choice to open carry than leave the gun in his locked car). His son is a straight-A student on the debate team, and the conversation went well.
Marek said he makes a greater effort to be polite and stay calm when he’s carrying a handgun. He also offered advice to those who don’t carry and don’t like the idea of seeing strangers carrying weapons in parks, meetings or walking down the street.
“Get some pepper spray or take a self defense class. … I can only worry about my own personal safety.”
*Purchases from federally licensed gun sellers do require a background check. Federal law prohibits felons, drug users, mental defectives, illegal aliens, dishonorably discharged military, citizen renunciations, persons subject of a PPO, and those with a domestic violence conviction from owning guns.