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Lansing — A commission empowered by Michigan's attorney general to decide whether to ban guns inside the Capitol adjourned its Monday meeting, citing online threats it was receiving, but not before voting to form a special committee to study its authority.

The Michigan Capitol Commission met a couple of hours after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a formal opinion that commission members had unilateral power to ban firearms inside the Capitol. The panel abruptly ended its meeting before taking public comments for "public safety" reasons. Some commissioners have said they think they need the approval of the GOP-controlled Legislature to impose such a ban.

The call for banning firearms inside the Capitol came after an April 30 protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home restrictions to combat COVID-19 in which armed protesters openly carried firearms into the Capitol and showed them in the gallery above assembled lawmakers. The armed demonstrators generated national attention, were condemned by conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity and prompted some legislators to say they felt the protesters were trying to intimidate them.

Commission member Margaret O'Brien, secretary of the Michigan Senate, said Monday's virtual conference through which the meeting was being held was receiving threatening messages.

"They were saying things like they knew where people lived," said John Truscott, vice chairman of the commission.

Bill Kandler, a commission member who participated by phone, said he was told "very vulgar" and "very racist" comments were posted through the video application Zoom at the end of the meeting. Kandler said he was told there were threats against the commission and members of the Legislature.

Whitmer said during a Monday press conference that she was "disappointed" the commission didn't act to restrict guns inside the Capitol. The Democratic governor also called on Republican lawmakers to denounce death threats against her on social media.

"This could be avoided if Republican leadership in the Legislature would step up and denounce that kind of activity, if there was anyone on the other side of the aisle that would do that," Whitmer said. "People can have any opinion they want, but to threaten someone else is beyond the pale."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has noted many people protested safely and responsibly on April 30, 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," he said in a prior statement. 

The situation has thrown the six-member panel in charge of the Capitol grounds into the spotlight.

While Nessel, a Democrat, has said the Capitol Commission has the authority to unilaterally ban guns, the commission's legal consultant, Amy Shaw, disagreed during the meeting.

The commission had been "thrust into the cross-hairs" based on "erroneous information that keeps getting repeated," said Shaw, who also works for the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate.

"The Legislature is the elected body with the clear responsibility of establishing public policy," Shaw said.

Tom Lambert, president of Michigan Open Carry, argued against banning the open display of guns inside the Michigan Capitol. The matter is a First Amendment issue, not a Second Amendment issue, he said.

Events where people openly carry guns in the Capitol show "good people have guns, too," Lambert said.

"The best way to confront a lie is directly and in person," he said.

Nessel's formal opinion came three days after the Democratic attorney general sent a letter to the commission advising members that they had the power to ban guns within the Capitol. The formal opinion aimed to give additional legal weight to her stance.

"As the commission has previously recognized in approving procedures for the use of the public areas of the Capitol, this grant of authority includes not only the obligation to care for and protect the Capitol grounds and facilities but also the obligation to care for and protect the safety of those working in and visiting the Capitol grounds and facilities," Nessel wrote.

She compared the commission's ability to bar guns to that of the Michigan Supreme Court, saying the commission, like the state's high court, "is not prohibited from placing restrictions on carrying firearms at facilities under its control."

But multiple commission members appeared to be unclear whether they could or couldn't ban guns in the Capitol building.

Truscott, the commission's vice chairman, said he doesn't like to see weapons in the building, but the commission had to be careful not to overstep its bounds.

During a virtual meeting, where more people tried to participate via Zoom than for which the panel had capacity, members voted unanimously to form a special committee of five members to examine the matter further.

Commissioner Kandler said he had to participate by phone because he couldn't get into the meeting through the Zoom application.

The special committee will consist of five commissioners except for Kerry Chartkoff, the Capitol historian emeritus. The committee did not specify a deadline for its study. But it will have an "aggressive" schedule for studying the gun issue, said Gary Randall, Michigan House clerk and chairman of the Capitol Commission.

Supporters of continuing to allow guns in the Capitol have argued those carrying weapons in the building are exercising constitutional rights.

Shirkey sent a letter Monday to the Michigan Capitol Commission, asking them to delay a potential vote on allowing firearms in the Capitol.

Shirkey asked commission members to "commit to meeting with legislative leaders, Senate and House sergeants and Michigan State Police to discuss the best policy going forward."

"The choice to allow or disallow the open carry of firearms brings with it the need for a thorough review of how the policy will be implemented and communicated to the public," Shirkey wrote.

But commission member and Democratic former state Rep. Joan Bauer said the Capitol Commission had a responsibility to protect the public's safety. Bauer said she was ready Monday to take action.

"They could easily deal with this by putting parameters on guns in the Capitol building," Bauer said of the Legislature. "I wish they would, but they haven't."

House Minority Leader Chris Greig, D-Farmington Hills, requested the new opinion from Nessel and backed banning guns and rifles from the Capitol building.

"With there now being no doubt whatsoever regarding their legal authority, the Michigan State Capitol Commission must act immediately to prohibit firearms within the Capitol, to ensure the safety and security of everyone who enters our statehouse and to protect the integrity of the People’s business that occurs there each day," Greig said in Monday statement.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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