Ban guns in Michigan Capitol, ban open carry at polling places, voters say in poll

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Wide majorities of Michigan voters support banning guns in the state Capitol and the open carrying of firearms at polling places, according to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll.

Moreover, there's widespread support for the bans across party lines, according to the Oct. 23-25 survey of 600 likely Michigan voters, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The poll included a representative sampling of respondents through all regions of the state.

Militia members protest at the state Capitol to oppose the executive orders Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, May 14, 2020.

In the final days before Election Day, 76% of Michigan voters said guns should be banned at the state Capitol. Only 18% said they guns should be allowed in the building.

"It makes me feel like people are listening," said state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, who has championed the idea of prohibiting guns in the building. "It makes me feel that, as Michiganders, while we may disagree on lots of things, we are unified on this issue."

Support for the change was widespread, according to the poll conducted by the Lansing-based Glengariff Group. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents all backed a ban, as did 70% of voters who said they owned guns.

Among voters who labeled themselves "strong Republicans," 53% supported banning guns in the Capitol, along with 72% of independents and 95% of strong Democrats.

While the topic has been debated for years — state officials allow guns to be carried in the Capitol but not protest signs — the notion has received new attention since April because of demonstrations over restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19.

What prompted gun debate

On April 30, dozens of protesters entered the Capitol, many carrying firearms, and chanted, "Let us in," outside the House chamber, which was closed to the public. In the Senate chamber that day, a group of individuals carrying long guns stood in the gallery above lawmakers and yelled as they met below.

After multiple other protests, authorities announced the arrests of 13 men on Oct. 8 who were allegedly involved in a plot to storm the Michigan Capitol and kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Some of the alleged plotters carried guns at Capitol rallies, where they also discussed violence against government officials, according to the testimony of federal agents.

Throughout the past six months, Democratic lawmakers have called for action to ban guns in the building. Many of the efforts have focused on the Michigan Capitol Commission, an obscure six-member panel that's in charge of maintaining the building and its grounds.

Dayna Polehanki,  D-Livonia

Commission members, effectively appointed by the GOP-controlled Legislature's leaders and Whitmer, have disagreed over whether to enact a ban, how to legally defend such a policy and how to finance its implementation. On Sept. 14, the commission rejected a proposal to completely ban guns and another to ban the open carry of weapons.

John Truscott, vice chairman of the commission, said he didn't find the poll results that unusual, but questions whether his group should make a decision on an issue that may be at odds with the constitution.

"The question that I have is, do they support an un-elected, unaccountable body making decisions that have constitutional ramifications?" Truscott said.

The commission is hoping the elected Legislature considers the matter, he said.

Republicans in the Legislature have publicly voiced little support for banning guns in the building. Some have previously said they're opposed to any change to the current policy. Others, like Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, have voiced support for banning open carry in the galleries of the House and Senate.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, told The Detroit News earlier this month that 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."

Democrats have introduced bills to ban guns in the Capitol in both the House and Senate this year. The proposals haven't received committee hearings.

On Wednesday, Reina Rodriguez of Lansing was touring the Michigan Capitol with her two young children. Standing on the third floor of the building, Rodriguez said she felt "conflicted" about the idea of guns in the Capitol.

The law allows it, she said, while she acknowledged that the presence of guns would likely "terrify" students on class field trips.

Joey Roberts, president of Michigan Open Carry, which supports gun rights, said firearms have been legal in the Capitol for a long time.

"We have not seen any violence," Roberts said. "There has not been a firearm use in the Capitol that our organization can find.”

Roberts said he was surprised the percentage supporting a ban was so high. If the views of all Michigan residents were surveyed, the numbers wouldn't be that high, he contended.

"If they were, I think there would be a lot more pressure on the Legislature," Roberts said.

Open carry at polls

If Michiganians strongly support a ban of guns at the Capitol, support is nearly as strong for banning the open carrying of firearms at voting locations, the poll found.

With less than a week before Election Day, a legal battle is still going on in Michigan over whether Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson can mandate such a ban.

Benson, the state's chief election official and a Democrat, moved to enact a ban on Oct. 16 through guidance sent to local clerks.

Jocelyn Benson, Secretary of State, holds a press conference at Pasteur Elementary School in Detroit to give an update on today's election, Tuesday,  August 4, 2020.

"The presence of firearms at the polling place, clerk’s office(s), or absent voter counting board may cause disruption, fear or intimidation for voters, election workers and others present," the guidance said.

The move led to a lawsuit. On Tuesday, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray effectively halted Benson's directive, saying she had exceeded her authority.

Asked if people should be allowed to bring guns that are openly carried "in plain sight to the polling place," 73% said openly carried guns should be banned and 22% said they should be allowed. A majority of Republicans and a vast majority of Democrats agreed that open carrying of firearms should not be permitted.

Even among gun-owning voters, 67% said the open carrying of guns should be banned at polling places.

The poll did not ask respondents whether they felt it was within Benson's authority to enact such a ban. 

Roberts of Michigan Open Carry said that many people walk to their polling places and cannot simply leave their weapons in their cars. In general, Roberts said, he's not a proponent of leaving guns in vehicles.

"The safest place for your firearm is holstered on your hip," he said.