Commission has authority to ban firearms at Capitol, but delays decision again

By: - June 30, 2020 1:24 pm

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A state commission tasked with keeping up and restoring the Michigan State Capitol building acknowledged Tuesday its authority to ban firearms at the historic site, but postponed a final decision until at least mid-July.

This is the third delay from the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC), which has debated the issue amid concerns over armed right-wing protesters swarming the Capitol during an April 30 protest of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Members discussed at their Tuesday meeting a report from Gary Gordon, the outside attorney the panel hired in May to see if it is allowed to make the call on regulating firearms on Capitol grounds. Gordon — a former Michigan chief deputy attorney general who presently works for Lansing-based Dykema Gossett PLLC — confirmed the commission’s legal right to regulate both in the building and around Capitol Square. 

“That kind of puts that issue to rest with regard to whether we have authority,” said Gary Randall, the Republican chair of the commission and clerk of the state House of Representatives. “Now I think it’s up to the commission to exercise how we want to exercise that authority moving forward.”

The commission has three choices on what to do next: entirely ban firearms, ban only long guns or take no action, Randall said.

Vice Chair John Truscott — who has advised several GOP officials and serves as president of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott-Rossman — said he was initially surprised, as he thought the decision might lie within the GOP-led Legislature’s control. 

However, Truscott said an opinion from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and conversations with her staff made it clear that regulations authority is already granted to the commission by the Legislature. Nessel, a Democrat, told the commission back in May it could make a decision on banning firearms without hiring a legal consultant. 

The commission now needs to develop regulatory policies to implement should members decide to go with a full or partial ban, Truscott said — and added the Michigan State Police (MSP) and Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) need to be consulted on the matter.

Randall also said the commission needs to exercise a “degree of caution” when considering potential costs of installing regulatory equipment. It could take at least $250,000 to fit the Capitol grounds with magnetometers — i.e., walk-through metal detectors — if the commission opts for a total firearms ban, he said.

Some commissioners also raised concerns about possible backlash generated by whatever decision they arrive at. Members talked about potentially consulting with Whitmer and the legislative leaders on the matter. Margaret O’Brien, a Republican member of the commission and secretary of the Senate, said the panel needs to ask for Nessel’s full support for whatever decision they make on firearms regulation in the Capitol.

Commission member Kerry Chartkoff said the commission needs to be timelier in their deliberations and added they must do something to control “at least the open carry of weapons” in Capitol spaces. 

The panel first met on the issue on May 11 and again on May 30, when members voted to hire an attorney. A June 19 meeting was pushed back until Tuesday.

The Capitol Commission plans to meet July 13 for further discussion. Members cited a need to conduct additional research on potential hazards presented by open carrying, review cost estimates of safety equipment, develop policies for the interior of the Capitol versus its exterior, and examine other factors. 

The commission has been previously criticized for delays in their process. After the commission’s May 11 adjournment with no firearms decision, state Sens. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) condemned the panel’s inaction, as the Advance previously reported.

“The Commission’s decision to delay action on such an important issue, as well as fail to even address the symbols of hatred that we also asked to be prohibited from the Capitol and its grounds in the letter we sent to them last week, is beyond disappointing,” the state senators wrote in a joint statement. “It’s irresponsible, and we expect better from those entrusted with the care of the people’s building and all who pass through it.”

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C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.