Heavily armed rally attendees began arriving outside the Virginia Capitol at daybreak. | Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury
This week, Monroe County almost became Michigan’s first so-called “sanctuary county” for gun rights.
But that effort fell through Tuesday evening, as confusion and disagreements within the mostly Republican Monroe County Board of Commissioners marred a vote on the issue.
The vote would have come just one day after a large gathering of gun rights activists preempted an emergency order in Virginia’s capital while protesting the Democrats’ gun control bills. Over the last few months, more than 100 Virginia municipalities have expressed their defiance of the Democratic-led changes by designating themselves as “sanctuaries” for their right to bear arms.
Thus began a trend that has since been followed by Republican municipalities in almost two dozen states. On Tuesday, Michigan came close to adding to that number.
Monroe County Commissioner and former Vice Chair Greg Moore Jr., a Republican who had planned to introduce his own resolution at Tuesday’s board meeting, explained his proposal to the Advance earlier this month.
“My resolution merely states that the Monroe County Board of Commissioners affirm and uphold the Second Amendment as stated in the U.S. Constitution, as well as the language in the Michigan Constitution pertaining to the people’s right to bear arms,” he wrote in an email.
“Like all elected officials, every County Commissioner I serve with swore an oath to uphold both of those documents. This resolution merely reaffirms that duty publicly,” Moore added.
Last year in a high-profile case, Moore was sentenced to six months probation and had to pay $550 in fees and court costs after police said he fled a car crash scene and failed to report it. The Monroe News reports he had 14 traffic violations between 2002 and 2016.
Last month, Moore was not reelected vice chair.
Emily Durbin, the Michigan chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she was surprised when she found out about Moore’s resolution for Monroe County.
“It’s hard to understand local elected officials proclaiming that they intend to essentially subvert democratically enacted laws,” Durbin said. “I think we should be talking about the fact that we have a gun violence crisis in the country, and in Michigan, over 1,000 people are killed every year by gun violence.”
Moore’s resolution was, however, removed from the agenda prior to Tuesday evening’s board meeting and ultimately was not voted upon.
Instead, the board chose to vote on an alternative resolution that reaffirmed the commissioners’ oaths to uphold all amendments within the Bill of Rights and the U.S. and Michigan constitutions.
The measure was approved 7-2. Moore was one of the two dissenters.
Chair J. Henry Lievens, who also is a Republican, did not bring Moore’s item because he had failed to follow procedural rules in introducing it, according to the Monroe News.
This didn’t seem to matter to dozens of county residents, who packed the board room in support of the measure. They had been tipped off to Moore’s plan to introduce the resolution last month, when he announced his intentions in a provocative and widely shared Facebook post. In it, he stated concerns over Virginia’s “unconstitutional gun ban” as his reason for bringing the gun rights resolution to a vote.
Lievens said Tuesday that the way Moore brought up the resolution resulted in accusatory comments on social media and phone calls from residents.
Many had misunderstood the resolution to mean that the commissioners were not already upholding their oaths to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions, he said. Lievens added that this upset he and other commissioners on the board, who did not appreciate being called “gun-grabbers” or “un-American,” the Monroe News reports.
Some residents also mistakenly believed that the resolution would make it possible to carry a firearm without a license.
Further inquiries and requests for comment were not returned by Moore, Lievens or Democratic Vice Chair Jerry Oley.
Additionally, the “sanctuary county” terminology caused confusion within the board and raised questions about what the resolution would mean in practice for local law enforcement.
The term used by the gun rights movement purposefully co-opts language from “sanctuary cities,” which refer to those with ordinances to protect undocumented immigrants from federal immigration laws. Sanctuary cities have a long history in the United States dating back to the 1980s, but have gained prominence since the President Trump administration’s rollout of punitive immigration laws.
So far, the “Second Amendment sanctuary” trend does not seem to have spread in Michigan.
The Advance asked the Michigan Association of Counties if other counties also are considering measures. Spokesman Derek Melot said that the association is “not tracking this issue at this time” and declined to comment further.
Legislation hasn’t been introduced at the state level yet, either. Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), said in an email to the Advance that she is not aware of plans to introduce legislation at this time.
A growing movement
Although legislation would apparently be new to Michigan, it is certainly not new elsewhere.
According to the Trace – a nonprofit news outlet backed by now-Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg that covers gun violence in America – more than 400 municipalities in 20 states have so far passed Second Amendment sanctuary measures.
That number seems to grow by the day. On Wednesday, Minnesota state lawmakers formally requested that county commissioners in Sherburne County pass their own Second Amendment sanctuary designation. If this happens, Sherburne would be Minnesota’s first county to do so.
The now-burgeoning sanctuary county movement began in Virginia last year, when the state’s General Assembly elected its first Democratic majority in more than two decades in November. The state already has a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam.
Virginia Democrats have promised to pass a host of gun control measures, including restrictions on assault weapons, upon taking office on Jan. 8.
They have already started to make good on this promise. A number of reforms have already passed through the state Senate this month and likely will be signed into law by Northam, with more bills on the way.
But all this talk — and now action — from Democrats on gun control has prompted a strong backlash from the more conservative parts of the state.
In a span of just two months, more than 120 municipalities in Virginia passed resolutions in anticipation of the new laws that declared themselves as “sanctuaries” for gun rights.
All this crescendoed into a chaotic scene Monday in Virginia’s capital city, where many thousands of heavily armed gun rights advocates flocked to Richmond to protest. Northam declared a temporary state of emergency for the city in advance, and had police barricades in place around the state capitol to hold back the crowd.
As the contentious situation in Virginia continues to play out, some counties in the state have even expressed a desire to secede from Virginia entirely and join neighboring West Virginia instead.
Michigan gun bills
Every year, gun rights activists hold an “open carry” rally outside Michigan’s Capitol, which is usually attended by GOP lawmakers. Many activists also go into the building, where they openly display their firearms.
Michigan is one of the states where it’s legal to carry a concealed handgun with a license. Among the many bills introduced this session to expand gun rights is legislation allowing guns to be carried in gun-free zones like churches, schools, bars and daycare centers. Similar legislation was vetoed by GOP then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
There also are bills that would make the penalty for carrying a gun into a gun-free zone only $100 and licenses wouldn’t be revoked. Another package would allow for lifetime concealed weapons permits.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is widely expected to veto gun expansion bills that may hit her desk.
Meanwhile, attempts at gun control legislation have been stalled for almost a year in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Extreme risk protection orders, commonly known as “red flag” bills, were reintroduced in the state Legislature last February, but have been tabled since then. Other bills that would restrict gun ownership from domestic abusers also have not been taken up.
Extreme risk protection orders would allow law enforcement to temporarily seize an individual’s firearms if they had clear evidence that the person poses a threat to themselves or others.
In September, Shirkey, the Senate majority leader, had given Democrats assurance that the red flag bills in the chamber would receive committee hearings after the Fiscal Year 2020 state budget was finalized.
This still has yet to occur, and McCann, his spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday that no date has been set to do so.
“Senator Shirkey intends to fulfill his commitment on a hearing of ‘red flag’ legislation, but has not specified a date,” she wrote.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) has not made such a commitment on pushing the House bill in the package forward, which has long been stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
In 2018, Chatfield tried to bring a loaded, unregistered pistol in an airport, but a GOP prosecutor declined to prosecute him on gun charges. He paid a $1,960 fine. Last year, Chatfield directed state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) — who backs several gun reform measures — to end the gun-free policy she had in her office.
Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro declined to comment on legislation to the Advance, and referred instead to a lengthy Dec. 31 Facebook post from Chatfield for his “thoughts on the larger issue.”
Chatfield’s post reads, in part:
“Michigan gun owners – Your right to keep and bear arms will not be infringed! There’s been increased talk lately in the national conversation of gun confiscation. … But let me make something perfectly clear: no law will pass this term in Michigan that will infringe on your constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It won’t happen.”
State Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt), the House Judiciary committee chair, did not respond to an email inquiry from the Advance about whether there is any legislation in the works to shore up gun rights for Michiganders. He told MIRS News in September that any gun control legislation has no hope of making it through his committee.
It remains unclear how much authority these “sanctuary county” resolutions actually hold in the face of state laws restricting access to firearms, as local officials are not tasked with determining the constitutionality of laws.
Durbin, the Moms Demand Action Michigan chapter leader, says this question will likely be tested in the courts when specific conflicts arise.
But she worries that although the resolutions likely do not wield real legal force, they could still paint an inaccurate picture of gun laws and cause real harm.
“I think they could potentially … have a chilling effect on community members who want to come forward to law enforcement or other county officials to express concerns they have about those who might be at risk for gun violence,” Durbin said.
“… It also conveys to communities that actions that are supported by the vast majority of Michiganders to prevent gun violence are not supported by elected officials. And that sets up a dynamic that I think is problematic.”
A 2019 EPIC-MRA poll found that more than 70% of Michiganders statewide would strongly support red flag laws, with overwhelming majorities also favoring other gun reforms.
Nationally, the majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun laws.
“It’s an odd stance to take as an elected official, to say that you don’t intend to enforce and support democratically enacted laws,” Durbin said. “… It would be really helpful if elected officials were getting behind those bipartisan bills and helping to encourage lawmakers to move those forward, instead of telegraphing an intention to shirk their duties.”
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