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Michigan panel rejects proposals to ban guns in Capitol

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan panel rejected two proposals that would have limited guns inside the state Capitol as a debate over the building's lax firearm policy rolled on into a fifth month Monday.

However, the Michigan Capitol Commission guaranteed its discussion of the matter will continue as it agreed to meet with Senate Majority Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. The meeting will be an attempt to find "common ground" on the subject, said Gary Randall, chairman of the commission.

"I think this invitation from the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House is a good indication that we can eventually come to an understanding and implement something that is well thought out and something that can be executed rather than just passing a ban that really could not be enforced," Randall added.

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

The commission's action Monday came ahead of a "Second Amendment March" that's planned for the Capitol building Thursday. More than 1,000 people plan to attend the event, according to a Facebook page.

The debate over whether firearms should continue to be allowed in the Michigan Capitol has been raging on and off in Lansing for years. But it's received renewed attention since an April 30 protest against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 stay-at-home sparked national headlines.

During the protest, dozens of people — some of whom carried firearms — ventured inside the Capitol 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. 

The debate has fallen at the feet of the six-member Michigan Capitol Commission, which Democratic lawmakers have called upon to act. The obscure commission is normally in charge of maintaining the Capitol grounds. It held its first meeting on the subject on May 11, about four months ago.

Joan Bauer, a former Democratic House member and a member of the commission, motioned Monday to ban guns in the Capitol. But the motion failed in a 2-4 vote as other members voiced concerns about the logistics and costs of banning guns without more study and input from the Legislature, which would have to appropriate the money for metal detectors, building upgrades and security personnel.

A new report from two of the commission members labeled a ban on concealed guns in the Capitol "a very heavy lift for Michigan State Police."

"They would have to increase personnel and would be dealing with at least three entrances," the report added.

It would cost at least $500,000 to monitor the entrance to the Capitol when it comes to enforcement and equipment, said John Truscott, a member of the commission. But others have argued that aban could require as little as posted signage to inform the public.

Another motion from member Bill Kandler would have limited open carry in the Capitol. It failed in a 3-3 vote.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have requested a meeting with the Michigan Capitol Commission about the issue of guns in the Capitol building

Bauer contended the commission has "moral and legal responsibility to act before something terrible happens." And state Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, spoke in favor of banning guns Monday, saying it wasn't a matter of "if" an act of violence would one day occur in the Capitol.

"It is a matter of when," Anthony said.

She argued that the presence of guns in the building creates an environment of "panic and anxiety" for those who work inside the Capitol and spurs pressure to vote a certain way to protect themselves from violence.

Supporters of allowing guns in the Capitol counter that they're exercising their constitutional rights, and there haven't been instances of violence in the past.

"Law-abiding citizens have a right to protect themselves," tweeted state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. "Today we were one vote away from losing that right."

Some commission members touted the need to figure out how a restriction on guns would function and how to fund the policy.

"This is not a simple issue where it’s just one way or another. It’s very, very complex. There are a lot of moving parts," Truscott said.

The upcoming meeting with Shirkey and Chatfield was a sign of "good faith" that the commission is trying to approach the subject in a "very deliberative and well-thought- out manner," Randall said.

On Thursday, Shirkey and Chatfield requested the meeting with the commission. The debate "demands our attention," the letter from the legislative leaders said.

Any change in policy "made by the commission would require coordination amongst staff in the House and Senate," the letter said.

"Therefore, we believe it is incumbent upon us to engage in a dialogue on this topic," the letter added.

Another factor in the Capitol Commission's consideration is the expectation that the panel will be sued if it seeks to limit guns in the Capitol. The panel "does not have a budget to provide legal representation," a commission report released Monday said.

The report included emails from D.J. Pascoe, chief legal counsel for Attorney General Dana Nessel's office. In them, Pascoe told a commission member that the office "will not" provide legal representation if the commission takes no actions on guns and "subsequently faces litigation flowing from that decision."

It's not possible to say whether the office would provide legal representation if the commission takes the "partial step" of only banning long guns and faces litigation "given the uncertainty of what those claims may entail," Pascoe wrote.

"As indicated previously, the office will represent the commission it it adopts a total ban on firearms for the public," Pascoe wrote before adding, "The attorney general continues to believe that it is vitally important that our Capitol is a safe place to work and visit."

On May 11, Nessel, a Democrat, released a formal legal opinion, saying the 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 didn't convince all of the commission members. Some of them predicted a lengthy legal fight would play out if the group tried to enforce a prohibition on firearms in the building. And 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.

On June 30, the commission released Gordon's findings, which also determined the commission can ban or allow firearms in the Capitol building and grounds.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.