Late last month, private militiamen carrying high-capacity, semi-automatic rifles shouted from the Michigan State Capitol galleries while lawmakers on the floor below debated an extension of the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to curb the coronavirus pandemic. At least one state representative wore a bulletproof vest.
But Republicans are stonewalling that effort.
The GOP controls both the legislature and the Michigan State Capitol Commission — the two entities that could enact a ban — and neither appears willing to act. On Monday morning, the commission, which manages the state Capitol building, decided against voting immediately on a firearms ban. Four of the six commission members effectively answer to GOP legislative leaders, while Whitmer appointed the other two.
Instead, the commission formed a subcommittee to “study the issue,” but set no timeline for action. They did so just days ahead of another protest of stay-at-home orders that has been planned by conservative groups. Angry Michiganders on social media have promised violence and “bloodshed” at the demonstration and threatened to assassinate Whitmer.
“Wonder how long till she’s hit with a shotgun blast,” another wrote, while one said on the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine page that they hope Thursday’s protesters are “armed to the teeth” because “Voting is too late.”
Meanwhile, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) said the state is investigating credible threats to state politicians.
“The concept of ‘open carry’ in Michigan law does not provide the unfettered right to bring firearms into any public space.”
Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow told HuffPost that she appreciates that the Michigan State Capitol Commission is considering the issue, but said there are “open threats of violence and death” and there is “no time” for a delay.
“This escalating rhetoric is dangerous and someone’s going to get hurt...or killed,” she said via text message on Monday afternoon.
The commission’s Republican members and the legislature’s GOP leadership claim the commission lacks the authority to ban guns inside the Capitol building, despite a formal opinion from Nessel stating that it can.
At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Gary Randall, a GOP appointee who helped create the entity in 2013, said it has “control over upkeep and care” of the Capitol grounds but no authority over firearms.
The commission’s legal consultant, Amy Shaw, who is also a GOP political operative, argued ― in what was essentially a speech filled with political commentary ― that the commission exists to make cosmetic improvements to the state Capitol and lacks the power to ban weapons.
“The commission does not set public policy — the legislature does,” she said.
Michigan law, however, prohibits guns in places like airports and day care centers. In her formal opinion, Nessel cited nonlegislative bans on guns in the state’s court systems and some schools.
“The concept of ‘open carry’ in Michigan law does not provide the unfettered right to bring firearms into any public space,” the attorney general said in a Friday letter to the commission. She added that allowing “assault weapons” in the Capitol building during an emotional debate creates “an absurdly dangerous situation that would cause the heart of any security expert to skip a beat.”
The commission’s claim that it lacks the relevant authority is “ridiculous,” Nessel said in a phone interview with HuffPost following the panel’s Monday meeting. The attorney general’s formal opinions are binding on state departments and agencies, she noted, and her opinion “clearly illustrated” why the commission has the authority to ban guns.
“This was them kicking the can down the road,” Nessel said. “They aren’t taking the attorney general’s formal opinion, so I don’t know whose advice they’re taking on this.”
Though the state Capitol allows visitors to carry guns, it prohibits signs in a rule that Commissioner Kerry Chartkoff noted at the meeting is designed to shield the historic structure from damage and to protect people from being hit with signs. She questioned the sense in banning signs but not guns.
Michigan is among a small number of states that don’t prohibit firearms in their legislative chambers. Randall said he looked at how other states enacted bans and found they did it via legislation, an administrative rule or a governor’s executive order.
Gun rights advocates bring weapons into Michigan’s state Capitol during annual Second Amendment marches, but last month’s show of force during the stay-at-home order debate appeared to be unprecedented. House Minority Floor Leader Yousef Rabhi (D) called it a threat to legislators and the democratic process. The commissioners who failed to act on Monday should be removed, he added.
“I believe that this is a direct threat to the civic fabric of our country, and if they fail to act then it’s an unraveling of that fabric,” Rabhi said. “There are going to be protesters who will come next week and they will be here with guns because the commission has failed to act.”
But Meshawn Maddock, who runs the Michigan Conservative Coalition, said it’s “absolutely ridiculous” for people to perceive the protesters as a threat. She noted that her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock (R), regularly carries a gun on the House floor.
“We should be more afraid of tyranny,” she said in reference to the stay-at-home orders. “All of our freedoms have been stomped on in Michigan. That’s what people should be afraid of. Not law-abiding citizens carrying guns.”
Monday’s meeting, which was held via Zoom video conference, was shut down early after the commission started receiving threats from suspected gun rights activists.
Rabhi noted the irony. “That’s exactly why we need to ban guns in the legislature,” he said.
Nessel said the state will have a heavy police presence at the Capitol going forward.
“We can’t allow the state Capitol to be a sanctuary for crime,” the attorney general said. “You don’t get to come to the state Capitol and do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want.”
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