Opinion: Ban guns from Capitol chambers
America is in a crisis, and not just from a pandemic. The threads of political discourse that have interwoven the tapestry of American democracy for the past 250 years are strained to the point of breaking.
Over the last 25 years, we have witnessed the growth of bitter partisanship. The emergence of outside groups and perpetual campaigning have spread from Washington, D.C., to our own state Capitol in Lansing and even into the debates of local and municipal governments across Michigan.
The severity of bitter political division was embodied on April 30 when angry COVID-19 protesters took to the Senate galleries in the Michigan Capitol armed with guns. Combined with death threats to our governor and social media calls that belittle anyone holding an opinion on either side of the COVID-19 debate, we seem to have crossed a line somewhere.
It’s time for our community — voters, elected leaders, business groups, clergy and other institutional leaders — to stand up and say enough is enough.
Protest — even angry protest that can involve civil disobedience — is an important part of our democracy. It has been a critical catalyst for change that ended deplorable working conditions, gave women the right to vote and spearheaded the civil rights movement.
We are all for a vigorous debate about COVID-19, personal freedom, public health and economic recovery. Protest ensures a strong democracy, holds our elected leaders accountable and can form the seeds of progress to making our society more just, equitable and free.
But the state Capitol, especially the chambers where our state legislators sit to debate, draft and move legislation to govern our state ought to be a safe place, free from physical intimidation or violence. And to that extent, just like courtrooms, most other State Capitols, and the U.S. Congress, guns ought to be outlawed, as should threats of physical violence and unsafe behavior (e.g., lack of social distancing, masks, etc.).
Not only should the deliberations and debates of our elected leaders be free from physical threats, but the public servants who work in the Legislature, including legislative staff, staff to the Clerk’s Office, the Sergeants of Arms, and even the custodial staff should be able to work free from fear of violence or unhealthy behavior.
The Second Amendment and the right to bear arms are, like all part of the Bill of Rights, important to uphold. But the American constitutional experience has always put reasonable limits on these rights.
The Capitol is protected by the Sergeants at Arms and State Police. Weapons should have no place in the gallery or on the floor of the chambers. Moreover, rules governing public health during the COVID-19 pandemic should govern inside the Capitol Building. Protests within these modest strictures should go on.
It’s time for the Michigan State Capitol Commission, the state Legislature and the governor to address these issues and make our state Capitol a safe space that encourages free speech, debate and democracy. And it’s time for our community — voters and community leaders alike — to stand up and say enough is enough.
Protest? Yes. Violence, intimidation, and unhealthy behavior? No.
Anne Mervenne is a former Republican Ingham County commissioner, former staffer in the Michigan Senate and for Gov. John Engler, and is the CEO of Mervenne and Co.
Steve Tobocman is a former Democratic state representative from Detroit and a partner at New Solutions Group, LLC.