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Michigan panel taps lawyer to examine power to ban guns at Capitol

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Facing calls from top Democratic officeholders to ban guns at the Michigan Capitol, the state panel in charge of maintaining the building sought more information Friday on whether it could actually do it.

One Michigan State Capitol Commission member, John Truscott, said he had been told such a prohibition would be challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After Truscott's statement, the commission, which had already formed a committee to study its power 18 days earlier, voted to hire an outside attorney to provide further legal guidance.

"I want to make sure we have all of the best opinions possible," said Truscott, a Lansing-based public relations professional and the commission's vice chairman.

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

The panel voted to hire Gary Gordon, a longtime government policy lawyer at the firm Dykema, to analyze its authority. His pay was capped at $5,000. The commission hopes to consider his findings at its next meeting on June 19.

The Michigan State Capitol Commission has found itself in the spotlight this month after a series of rallies against stay-at-home restrictions featured protesters openly carrying firearms on the grounds. The debate peaked after an April 30 demonstration, during which a handful of participants stood in the Senate gallery holding guns while lawmakers met on the floor below.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel released a formal legal opinion on May 11, saying the six-member Michigan State Capitol Commission had the power to ban guns. The commission is appointed by the governor, the House clerk and the Senate secretary.

A large Pikachu holds an AR-9 assault-style gun during a protest at the state Capitol to oppose the executive orders Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, May 14, 2020.

Nessel's finding hasn't convinced all of the commission members. Some of them predicted Friday a lengthy legal fight would play out if the group tried to enforce a prohibition on firearms in the building.

Some members want the Legislature to take up the matter instead of a panel with the main job of managing the building and its grounds.

A ban on guns would be temporary, said Gary Randall, the clerk of the GOP-controlled Michigan House and the commission's chairman.

“We could ban firearms," Randall said. "We would see an injunction probably slapped on in 24 hours.”

But Joan Bauer, another commission member and Democratic former House member, questioned why the panel would spend money to hire an outside attorney when the state's top legal officer, Nessel, already said it could ban guns. Bauer noted that Nessel was elected by "the people of Michigan."

"Why is the advice of an outside attorney better than that of our attorney general?” she asked.

New Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield R-Levering, right, accepts the gavel from Clerk Gary Randall, left.

The commission's move Friday was the latest development in years-long debate over whether the Michigan Capitol, which bans visitors from carrying signs, should continue to allow guns inside its doors.

The panel last met on May 11, when it voted to form a five-member special committee to study the matter.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has previously said she was "disappointed" the commission didn't act to restrict guns inside the Capitol on May 11.

Gordon, the attorney hired to continue that study, is expected to provide his findings in "a couple of weeks," Randall said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com