Commission bans open carry of firearms at Michigan Capitol

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan State Capitol Commission voted unanimously Monday to ban the open carry of firearms at the state Capitol less than a week after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol during the Electoral College count and ahead of anticipated protests next week. 

The ban, which goes into effect immediately, would stop people from carrying firearms within the state Capitol unless they were members of law enforcement or had a concealed pistol license and were carrying concealed. Commission Vice Chairman John Truscott said the ban also would prevent lawmakers from openly carrying on the chamber floor. 

Open carry is still allowed on the grounds surrounding the Capitol. 

William Null stands in the gallery of the Michigan Senate Chamber during the American Patriot Rally, organized by Michigan United for Liberty, to demand the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 30, 2020.

The vote comes after years of consideration of a potential ban on gun possession in the Michigan Capitol, a debate that ratcheted up last spring during armed protests of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order. 

Democrats called for banning the concealed carry of guns as well, arguing the commission was creating a loophole that could be exploited.

"On a normal day, hundreds of people walk through the Capitol, including groups of fourth-graders, teachers and parents on school field trips to learn about state government," Whitmer said in a Monday statement. "That’s why we must take action to ban all weapons at the Capitol to keep Michiganders safe."

Michigan Open Carry said it was reviewing the commission's action, but immediately noted it might have violated the state's Open Meetings Act by not allowing for public comment. Instead, the commission asked for emailed comments ahead of the meeting. 

Besides that, Michigan Open Carry President Joey Robinson said, the commission's action didn't seem to ban open carry among concealed pistol license carriers, though commissioners argued it did.

"From the context of the motion, it sounds like CPL holders could still carry within the restrictions of their CPL, which open carry isn’t banned when you have a CPL," Robinson said. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office wouldn't commit to a legal defense of the commission if it should be sued over Monday's decision and instead said in an email: "The AG’s department remains firm in its commitment to legally represent the Commission should it ultimately vote to ban all firearms.​​​​​​"

Nessel, a Democrat, concluded last year the commission could ban firearms to “ensure the safety of the visiting public” as well as lawmakers.

GOP leaders shift stances

The commission acted swiftly Monday to pass the ban after Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, voiced support for the policy last week. It was the first time the Senate leader publicly endorsed any limit on gun possession in the Capitol. 

House Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth said the commission lacks the authority to set policy in the Capitol even though other legal opinions have said the commission, as the building's manager, does have the authority. The Farwell Republican said he would be looking at options for addressing the situation. 

"In the meantime, the Michigan State Police will be enforcing the new ruling," Wentworth's office said in a statement. "In order to ensure there is no confusion in the Capitol, Speaker Wentworth asks everyone to respect the Michigan State Police and the rules they enforce.”

While Wentworth questioned the vote for going too far, Democratic leaders criticized the ban for not going far enough to ban the concealed carry of guns. 

"Firearms — whether explicitly visible or concealed by clothing — possess the same capability to inflict injury and harm on others and only banning open carry does little to meaningfully improve the safety and security of our Capitol," said Nessel, who could be tasked with defending the commission if it is sued over the ban.

During an April 30 protest, dozens of people — some of whom were armed — went inside the Capitol, demanded entry to the House floor and stood with firearms in the Senate gallery above lawmakers while they were in session.

Lawmakers were sent fliers over the weekend advertising an armed march on Capitol Hill and all 50 state capitols next week ahead of the presidential inauguration. Twitter also has warned of demonstrations, including a "proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021."

Concealed carry's future

The six-member Capitol commission manages the Capitol building and has received legal guidance indicating a ban on firearms was within its authority. But the commission has failed to find consensus on a plan and at times voiced hope that the Legislature would instead enact rules or laws initiating a ban on firearms. 

The ban would be the first of its kind at the Michigan Capitol, which has long lagged behind other state capitols with stricter enforcement on guns. 

Commissioners argued Monday that further restrictions on concealed carry would be in the Legislature's hands. The commission could arguably pass such a ban but implementation would be difficult without the estimated $1 million a year it would take to install, maintain and staff metal detectors at entrances, Truscott said.  

The commission planned to vote on some measure of gun limitations in the new year, but the U.S. Capitol insurrection gave more urgency to the issue, he said. 

"I think everybody was in horror over what they saw at the (U.S.) Capitol," Truscott said. "It's probably an indication of the times that we're in. ... That kind of help spurred the special meeting."

In 2013, former Gov. Rick Snyder signed laws that established the Capitol as a historic site and created the Michigan State Capitol Commission, granting it the power to operate and manage the site. 

House and Senate Democrats have criticized the commission's decision to ban only open carry of firearms and urged them to also ban concealed carry inside the Capitol ahead of the Legislature's first day of session on Wednesday. 

"In addition to lawmakers doing the work of the people, our Capitol is open to school kids, tour groups and others seeking to learn more about the history of our amazing state," House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said in a statement with Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, and Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac.

"Without a significant change in policy, lives will continue to be put at risk by domestic terrorists carrying weapons," they said.

By banning only open carry, the commission is "telling people how to get guns into our Capitol," state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said Monday on Twitter. 

"Until we have metal detectors and guns are banned we are all at risk," he said

"When I sit on the floor of the Senate I am a representation of the 250,000 people in my district," Hertel added. "The only thing I should be concerned about is them. Not threats or intimidation from terrorists and toy soldiers."