By Daigo Yazawa
A Michigan State Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s decision on Nov. 27, 2018, siding with the defendants who regulate the carry of firearms to sports and entertainment venues.
The plaintiffs, Michigan Open Carry Inc. and Michigan Gun Owners Inc., alleged that the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention Arena Authority’s (CAA) firearms policy violated MCL 123.1102, the statute which prohibits a local unit of government from regulating firearms. The defendants, the CAA and SMG Holdings Inc., who is employed by the CAA to manage the CAA’s facilities at DeVos Place, DeVos Performance Hall, and Van Andel Arena, ban the concealed carry of firearms at all three venues. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on July 1, 2016 in Kent County Circuit Court, after exhibitors at the West Michigan Women’s Expo at DeVos Place were told to disarm or leave.
The plaintiffs argued that the CAA’s firearms policy violated the statute that prohibits a local unit of government from regulating firearms. The plaintiffs also alleged that the state statutory scheme regulating firearms preempted the CAA’s attempt to regulate firearms. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment to that effect. The defendants, on the other hand, argued that their firearms policy was consistent with state law.
On the dispute regarding the validity of the firearms policy, the trial court denied defendants’ motion and granted the plaintiffs’ motion. First, the trial court agreed with the plaintiffs that the state law preempted the CAA’s attempt to regulate firearms. Second, the trial court disagreed with the defendants who argued that they could ban the concealed carry of firearms at DeVos Place and DeVos Performance Hall because they were not locations where the concealed carry of firearms was prohibited by state law. Third, the trial court determined that the defendants should not enforce firearms ban to a lessee and a lessee could decide whether to ban weapons at an event. The trial court declared the CAA’s current firearms policy was unenforceable because it was contrary to state law.
The defendants appealed. First, the defendants argue that a prohibition on the concealed carry of firearms at DeVos Place, which contains DeVos Performance Hall, is permissible because it is an entertainment facility that can seat more than 2,500 people. State law prohibits concealed pistol licensees from carrying a concealed pistol at several specified locations, including a sports arena or stadium such as Van Andel Arena, and an entertainment facility with a seating capacity of 2,500 or more individuals.
Entertainment is defined as something amusing, diverting, or engaging, such as a public performance, whereas facility is defined as a building established to serve a particular purpose. DeVos Place, and DeVos Performance Hall as an extension, were built for performances that qualify as entertainment. Therefore, “DeVos Place, which houses DeVos Performance Hall, is an entertainment facility.”
In terms of the capacity, the trial court concluded that the CAA could not ban the concealed carry of firearms at DeVos Place and DeVos Performance Hall because they do not fall within the locations listed in the statue. However, the appeals court concludes that ”the trial court erred when it ruled that the concealed carry of firearms was not prohibited by statute at DeVos Place because the trial court did not make a finding about seating capacity.” Thus, the appeals court remand to the trial court to make findings regarding the seating capacity and to determine whether DeVos Place falls within the ban on the concealed carry of firearms. If DeVos Place, which also contains DeVos Performance Hall, is considered as an entertainment facility with a seating capacity of 2,500 or more, “then concealed pistol licensees are prohibited from carrying concealed pistols on the premises under state law, and the CAA’s policy banning concealed weapons is not contrary to state law.”
Second, the defendants contend that the trial court erred by determining that the defendants, as local units of government, could not enforce a private lessee’s ban on firearms at an event. Regarding this dispute, the appeals court concludes that “MCL 123.1102 does not bar the CAA from enforcing a private lessee’s firearms policy” and states that “it [MCL 123.1102] would not affect the ability of local units of government to enforce private rights to restrict firearms when the statute treats regulation and enforcement as independent actions.”
Lastly, the parties dispute the significance of the CAA’s statement in the frequently asked questions (FAQs) on each venue’s websites. According to the FAQs, the open carry of firearms is “rarely” permitted at the three venues, but the trial court found that the concealed carry and open carry of firearms was “normally” permitted at DeVos Place and DeVos Performance Hall. On this dispute, the defendants maintained the purpose of the FAQs was to inform the public about common answers to common questions, and that there is no blanket ban on firearms because the firearms policy at an event depends on the private lessee’s request. The appeals court concludes that “the FAQ section reflects the possibility that a private lessee may ban firearms, but providing this information to the public does not show that [the] defendants have a policy of banning firearms.”
This case is important because safety is a priority concern for venue and event managers, yet the validity of firearms policy at venues/events is argued in relation to state law.
 MCL 123.1102: A local unit of government shall not impose special taxation on, enact or enforce any ordinance or regulation pertaining to, or regulate in any other manner the ownership, registration, purchase, sale, transfer, transportation, or possession of pistols, other firearms, or pneumatic guns, ammunition for pistols or other firearms, or components of pistols or other firearms, except as otherwise provided by federal law or a law of this state.
 John Agar, Exhibitors Had Right to Carry Firearms at DeVos Place Convention, Lawsuit Says, Grand Rapids News (July 2, 2016), https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2016/07/exhibitors_had_right_to_carry.html
Daigo Yazawa is a doctoral student in the Department of Sport Management at Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL.