Armed protesters in Michigan Capitol have lawmakers questioning policy

Sarah Rahal Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Democratic lawmakers are questioning the policy of allowing firearms in government buildings after they felt intimidated by armed protesters Thursday at the Michigan Capitol.

Dozens of people with the "American Patriot Rally" started on the Capitol steps Thursday before heading inside the building demanding entry into the House chamber. Michigan State Police troopers stood in a line blocking the protesters who chanted, "Let us in."

Some protesters with firearms also went to the Senate gallery, which was open to the public and where demonstrators occasionally shouted down at lawmakers as they were in session.

Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, was among some lawmakers on the floor wearing bulletproof vests.

More:Whitmer orders casinos, restaurants, other venues to stay closed through May 28

More:Whitmer lifting some restrictions on construction, real estate

"It’s a scary feeling trying to come into work — to do the work of the people — while protesters are trying to storm the building and having men with semi-automatic weapons hovering over you in the gallery," Santana told The Detroit News on Saturday.

"I think we do need to reconsider how we support open carry in the Capitol, definitely other states have metal detectors and other checkpoints."

Some protest signs, backpacks, umbrellas, megaphones and flags not allowed in the state capitol Thursday.

The protesters called on elected officials to lift restrictions, such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order, which they see as an infringement on their constitutional rights.

Detroit News reporters spoke with protesters Thursday who said they carry firearms constantly because the Constitution allows them.

"I openly carry my firearm every day for my self-protection," said John Parkinson of Macomb Township. "It's not that we are trying to say, 'look at me.'"

Parkinson, a certified firearms instructor, said despite the firearms visible on the Capitol lawn, there was not one accidental discharge or shooting. He said, "it's not a gun problem, it's a people problem."

Rep. Matt Maddock, R-White Lake, agreed with the protesters' rights, saying they would have been allowed in the gallery had it not been closed to be used as part of the House floor.

"People are tired, angry, broke, are unemployed and protesting. They have no direction and are confused," he said. "They’re demonstrating their constitutional rights."

Protesters at the "American Patriot Rally," gathered at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing to voice displeasure for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus pandemic polices, on April 30, 2020.

Maddock does not think Michigan should restrict firearms and didn't find protesters to be intimidating, saying: "I like being around people with guns."

Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, who served 25 years with the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, said members are talking about proposing new legislation to change the law.

​"As a retired law enforcement officer, I don’t think they should be able to bring guns into our chambers," he said. "A lot of people are emotional. They feel like their rights are being infringed on and who do they want to take it out on? Lawmakers. It's unsettling."  

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement that many people protested safely and responsibly, but he condemned others who "used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor."

"Their actions hurt their cause and steal from the rights of others by creating an environment where responsible citizens do not feel safe enough to express themselves," Shirkey said. 

They do not represent the Senate Republicans, he said, adding "At best, those so-called protesters are a bunch of jackasses."

Michigan is one of about a dozen states that allowed the public to generally carry firearms, either concealed or openly, inside capitol buildings, according to a 2013 report from the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS News).

Michigan's policy dates back to the 1930s, said John Truscott, who sits on the Capitol Commission, which sets building policy.

Truscott said the presence of armed protesters inside the Capitol "has started conversations on what can be done or if anything can on our end. We have always tried to keep the building as accessible as possible but safety measures are the most important."

In 2016, then-House Democrats Jeremy Moss of Southfield and Robert Wittenberg of Oak Park announced legislation seeking to ban firearms in state government buildings but allow political signs in those places.

The proposal would have reversed longstanding rules at the Capitol, where signs are banned but guns are allowed.

Moss, now a senator, said the legislation, which never moved through the House, would promote First Amendment rights while creating a safer environment in government buildings. He said that legislation is more prominent now following what they've encountered.

"The building was shaking with angry people; there was not a lot of rationality," Moss said. "What were they going to do when they were inside the House chamber?"

Wittenberg, a House member and founder of the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus, said "there’s no need for weapons to be brought into the Capitol. ... It was scary, unnecessary and no one will speak against the right to protest. That was trying to intimidate legislators and law enforcement."

Wittenberg said the Caucus tries to promote the Second Amendment while mitigating gun violence.

He said he doesn't expect the Capitol policy to change, saying the majority of Republican leaders "have never given time for a hearing on universal background checks or even revoking from abusers."

Armed men in the Michigan Senate gallery on Thursday, April 30.

Moss noted that in 1999, when Detroiters protested the plan of then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, to take over struggling public schools in Detroit at the state Capitol, metal detectors were installed outside the gallery. 

"All it took was for a book to fall or a bang into the cabinet, and we would have been at the O.K. Corral," he said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_