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Senate leader supports ban on open carry of firearms in Michigan Capitol

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Thursday that he would support a ban on the open carry of firearms within the Michigan Capitol.

The Clarklake Republican made the statement after months of debate over the state Capitol's policy allowing the open carry of firearms and a day after hundreds of individuals stormed the U.S. Capitol during the Electoral College vote count. The state Capitol was closed temporarily Thursday as law enforcement officers investigated a bomb threat. 

Exterior photo of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Shirkey's support does not extend to a ban on concealed carry within the state Capitol, Shirkey's spokesman Amber McCann said Thursday. 

House Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. His predecessor, Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said the Legislature would need 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." 

The Michigan Capitol Commission, the appointed group that manages the facility, is pleased with Shirkey's support of the ban since one of the items the commission was waiting on "was both bodies to express support," commission vice-chair John Truscott said Thursday.  

"We would certainly welcome the Legislature doing it, but our meeting schedule will allow us to act a little sooner," Truscott said. The commission next meets at the end of the month. 

Shirkey's support for the open carry ban at the Capitol was met with criticism from Senate Democrats, who called for a complete ban of weapons within the building. 

"This is NOT a viable option to keep us/visitors safe," said Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat whose photo of an armed gunman in the Senate gallery in April went viral. "All this does is prevent embarrassing photos from going viral. We can just as easily be slaughtered by concealed weapons. Stop with the half measures and ban all guns from the Michigan Capitol."

The debate over gun possession in the Capitol has been present in Michigan for years, but it became more pressing after months of protests against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. Several protesters carried firearms into the Capitol and, on April 30, demanded Michigan State Police allow them onto the state House floor. 

On Oct. 8, 13 individuals were arrested in connection to plots to storm the state Capitol, kidnap Whitmer and incite a civil war. Some of those arrested were photographed with firearms at the COVID-19 restriction protests, including April 30 in the Senate gallery.

In September, the Michigan Capitol Commission rejected two proposals that would have limited guns inside the building — one that would have banned all guns in the Capitol and one that would have banned open carry of firearms in the Capitol. Commissioners have noted a complete ban on firearms would be costly since metal detectors likely would need to be installed to enforce such a policy.

The commission and lawmakers have gone back and forth about whether the decision should be left to lawmakers or the commission, which manages the building.

Some lawmakers expressed renewed concern about the state's policy Thursday, a day after protesters breached the U.S. Capitol and hours after the Michigan state Capitol was closed temporarily to investigate a bomb threat. 

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, on Wednesday demanded additional safety measures — including a ban on visitors and weapons — for when the Legislature next meets on Wednesday. She also demanded the National Guard be present. 

At the  least, she later clarified, leadership should ban firearms at the Capitol and visitors for the week. 

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, told The Detroit News Thursday that the D.C. rioters should serve as a "catalyst" for change in the state Capitol's policy. 

"The people's house must be a safe place for an open exchange of ideas and debate," Ananich said. "Every day that we continue to allow guns in the Capitol is one day closer to a preventable tragedy."

House Minority Leader-elect Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said she welcomed Shirkey's support of an open carry ban, but pushed for a complete ban for all individuals in the Capitol other than law enforcement. 

The ban would ensure that "when lawmakers come to the capitol that their sole focus is doing the people’s work," she said. 

Shirkey, McCann said, "has every confidence in the abilities of the Senate Sergeants and the Michigan State Police."

Truscott said Thursday the commission is discussing ways to improve security in the wake of what happened in Washington, D.C.

"Going forward, one of the conversations I want to have with state police is are there other measures we should be looking at to make sure what happened in Washington doesn’t happen here," he said. 

William Kandler, a member of the commission, anticipated movement on an open carry ban soon, but he noted the more pressing issue at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as rioters stormed barricades and doorways went beyond guns. 

"How can we protect the Capitol beyond just banning weapons?” he said. 

The state House announced its Thursday closure in a message to its employees after a man called the Michigan Capitol facilities control office in Lansing at about 6:40 a.m. and made a bomb threat, according to a statement from the Michigan State Police.

Michigan State Police closed the building, performed a sweep of the Capitol and confirmed there was no real threat by 9 a.m.

State police arrested a 48-year-old Charlotte man believed to have made the call at his home Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Dana Nessel said. He could be charged as early as Friday. 

Exterior photo of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

The sessions of the U.S. House and Senate were interrupted at about 2:15 p.m. Wednesday as rioters broke windows and got inside the building. Police put the Capitol on lockdown. Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding, as well as senators and representatives, were evacuated. 

The lawmakers resumed their work Wednesday night and certified Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's victory early Thursday.

The Michigan House and Senate aren't scheduled to be in session this week.

cmauger@detroitnews.com