The effort in Lansing to ease restrictions on carrying concealed weapons would mark a major change in state gun laws and be the latest in a string of victories for gun-rights advocates in Michigan in recent years.
Last week, the Michigan House approved a series of controversial bills that would allow lawful gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit or state-mandated training.
Since 2001, the state has:
- Expanded access to concealed weapon permits
- Passed a law allowing Michigan gun owners to "stand your ground"
- Streamlined pistol purchases by allowing gun dealers to use instant computer background checks
- Eliminated county gun boards, which had decided who received a carry permit
- Barred local governments from passing gun ordinances
Glocks for sale are displayed at Double Action Indoor Shooting Center and Gun Shop on Friday, June 9, 2017 in Warren.Photo: Elaine Cromie, Detroit Free Press)
The trend goes well beyond Michigan, said John Lott Jr., a gun-rights advocate who runs the Crime Prevention Research Center, a nonprofit research center that studies guns and crime.
"That's the same type of thing you've seen in state after state," Lott said. "Generally, what you've seen is a gradual liberalization of gun laws."
Lott said the liberalization typically happens in stages beginning with the right to carry a weapon, the reduction or elimination of gun-free zones, broader access to concealed weapon permits and eventually the elimination of licensing and training requirements.
These latest bills still must clear the State Senate and then go to Gov. Rick Snyder, who hasn't said whether he'll sign them. Spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Snyder typically doesn't comment on legislation until he sees the final language, but she did note that the Michigan State Police were among the law enforcement agencies that testified against the bill.
"It's going to be a long-shot to get him to sign it," said Tom Lambert, president of Michigan Open Carry, a gun-rights advocacy group which supports the legislation. "But we have to try. Many good people are being harmed by our current laws.
Under current Michigan law, gun owners who want to carry a concealed weapon must first get a permit from their county clerk, which requires taking a training course and paying a fee of $115. The permit is good for five years.
To renew a license, applicants must verify that they've undergone three hours of training to review safety and legal issues and spent at least an hour on a shooting range. Clerks can deny the request for a number of reasons including criminal records and mental health histories.
The legislation that passed the state House this week would eliminate the licensing, the fee and the training requirement, allowing lawful gun owners to carry their weapons under their clothes. That system is dubbed "Constitutional Carry" because both the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions include a right to keep and bear arms.
Michigan would join 14 other states that have some form of constitutional carry. Several other states are considering similar measures. Lambert stressed that people who want to carry would still have to be lawful gun owners, who've undergone a background check and other measures at the time of purchase.
"For over 90 years, we've had the equivalent of universal background checks for pistol purchase permits and this legislation doesn't change that," Lambert said.
But is this latest effort good policy?
Backers say yes, arguing it liberates a constitutional right from a bureaucratic tangle of fees and training requirements.
"The only people who are burdened by those laws are the people you don't have to worry about," said Steve Dulan of the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners, which backs the legislation.
Dulan said some Michigan prosecutors have charged lawful owners with carrying a concealed weapon, a 5-year felony, simply for having their gun in their car on the way to the gun range.
But opponents, including many law enforcement groups, disagree, saying the change would gutbasic safety measures like required training.
"How does this make us safer?" said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriff Association, which opposes the bill."It doesn't. Iteliminates the license requirement. It eliminates the training piece. Many of us agree with the right to carry a weapon, but with that right should come a responsibility and our feeling as an association is that the two are intertwined."
Detroit Police Officer James Watson teaches a training course that applicants must complete before getting their carry license under current law. The course is eight hours, with about five hours of classroom instruction and three hours on the gun range, including firing at least 100 rounds.
He said students in the course often have very limited knowledge of firearms and need to learn safe handling, storage and transportation of weapons as well as the various laws that apply to them.
"If you are not familiar with something, bad things can happen," he said. "People who are not trained are going to be out there with the ability to use deadly force. There's a lot to know. It's as simple as that."
Dino Prapas, a former professional bodyguard who also teaches training courses, agrees that people need training. He said that even if the law passes, many people will still apply for and receive permits, to enjoy the reciprocity many states offer Michigan license holders.
Gun owners without permits would still be barred from carrying their weapons in restricted places, like churches, hospitals and day care centers, where license holders are allowed to carry.
"I think people are going to see the advantages of getting a CPL," Prapas said.
Dulan said he expects most people to continue to get training even though it won't be required, though people who can't afford it would be freed from the expense.
Koops said police officers are concerned about the change because it could mean more people with less training carrying weapons.
"Some people are very safety-conscious and some people aren't," Koops said. "You're just heightening the chance for an accident."
Koops said that when an officer makes a traffic stop, a computer check of the license plate and its owner will typically reveal that the driver holds a concealed license permit. The officer then immediately asks whether the person is carrying a weapon.
With no licensing, the officer has no hint.
"Emotions are high on both side of that and this only makes them higher," Koops said.
Before 2001, Michigan gun owners who wanted to carry concealed weapons were required to apply for a permit and justify their need for it. But that year, the state switched to a method known as "shall issue," which means the state must issue a permit to any applicant who meets the qualifications and isn't disqualified by criminal history, mental illness or other factors.
In 2003-04, the state issued
31,121 permits to carry concealed weapons and by 2015-16, the numbers had risen to 170,961 permits approved, according to the Michigan State Police annual report
. Currently, 616,508 Michigan residents have valid permits to carry a concealed weapon, about 6% of the state's population.
Lott said that in 1992, eight states were considered "shall issue" states and now there are 42 and the number of Americans licensed to carry a concealed weapon now tops 15 million, about 5% of the nation's population, or one in 20 Americans.
Bill Ballenger, a former state legislator who edits an eponymous political report, said the move toward more liberalized gun laws has been less of a lobbying triumph than a philosophical shift within the Republican Party, which has large majorities in the Legislature.
"There are a number of these very conservative Republican members, including really conservative Republican women, who are very pro-gun," Ballenger said. "When you've got women pushing gun rights, that's counter-intuitive. It's going against the grain and that really helps the pro-gun lobby."
Ballenger said Synder is more moderate than most of the conservative legislators behind this effort, but he thinks if the bill passes the Senate, Snyder will be pressured to sign it.
"I think he'll sign it," Ballenger said.
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GUNS BY THE NUMBERS
Michigan residents: 9,922,576
Conceal pistol license holders: 606,518
States that allow concealed carry: 42
States with some form of constitutional carry: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming.
Sources: U.S. Census bureau, Michigan State Police, Detroit Free Press research.