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Michigan House speaker: Leave guns in Capitol decision to Legislature

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, says the decision on whether to allow guns in the state Capitol should be left up to state lawmakers.

Chatfield, the leader of the GOP-controlled House, made the comments in a Saturday  interview as the Michigan Capitol Commission, a six-member panel in charge of maintaining the building's grounds, continues to weigh whether to enact a policy on firearms.

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, motions to supporters of President Donald Trump while speaking at a rally in Norton Shores on Oct. 17, 2020.

"Historically, this has been something that the Legislature has decided," Chatfield told The Detroit News. "That's what our Constitution delineates, as well, that we have control over our chamber. And I think it should be a decision left up to the Legislature."

The debate over continuing to allow both concealed and openly carried guns in the Capitol has raged in Michigan for years. But it's gained new attention in recent months as protesters against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions have openly carried firearms in the building. Photos surfaced of two men charged in an alleged kidnapping plot of Whitmer carrying weapons around the Capitol during one demonstration.

During an April 30 protest, some of demonstrators brought weapons into the gallery of the state Senate while shouting down at lawmakers below. On Oct. 8, 13 individuals — at least some of whom had participated in past Lansing protests — were arrested in connection to plots to storm the state Capitol, kidnap Whitmer and incite a civil war.

The arrests spurred new conversation about the building's gun policy. On Oct. 8, as news of the alleged kidnapping plot broke, state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, called on lawmakers to ban firearms.

"If not now, when?" Polehanki asked, speaking on the Senate floor. "We may not get a second chance like we have today."

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

Chatfield said if the gun policy were an easy decision, it would have been decided decades ago.

"We have to adopt a policy that respects the rights and freedoms of people while, at the same time, ensures that people are kept safe inside our Capitol," Chatfield said. "We are in ongoing conversations to find what that policy is."

On Sept. 14, the Michigan Capitol Commission rejected two proposals that would have limited guns inside the building, saying discussions and research would continue. Four of the six members of the panel are essentially appointed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Two members are the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the state House. Two others are appointed jointly by the secretary and the clerk.

Two others are appointed by the governor.

Over the last two weeks, The News has sent questions to more than a dozen Republican lawmakers about their positions on guns in the Capitol.

The majority didn't provide answers but some signaled at least some level of support for limits on weapons inside the House and Senate galleries, where the public can sit and watch session.

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said "at minimum," he would support banning open carry in the galleries of the House and Senate.

Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said if something had to be done, he would only want to ban open carry in the whole building or just in the galleries.

"What would break my heart is not any type of firearm restriction, but the turning of the Michigan Capitol from a beautiful historical building that is open to all its people into a guarded castle with metal detectors and other mechanisms at every entrance.

"That would truly be a sad day for me."

If the Capitol Commission acted on its own to limit guns, it would be because of "the idiots who have abused the freedom that will ruin it for all," Miller said.

"Shame on them regardless," he added.

cmauger@detroitnews.com