A panel keeps delaying action to ban guns in Michigan’s Capitol. But supporters remain optimistic.

By: - July 14, 2020 4:01 pm

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A panel in the midst of deciding whether to prohibit firearms from the Michigan Capitol delayed yet another meeting Monday — its second rescheduled meeting in less than a month — prompting concerns that it is dragging its feet on taking action.

But one member of the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC), who has been particularly vocal about the panel’s need to act quickly, says she is relatively hopeful that the next meeting in four weeks will end in a decision one way or another.

“I will say that I had my doubts in the beginning about the delay in dealing with it,” said Commissioner Joan Bauer, a Democratic former state lawmaker from Lansing. “But I think we’re now at a different level where we have been told we have the authority. … I’m cautiously optimistic that we will be able to take some action on this.”

The MSCC meets next at 11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 10, via House and Senate livestreams. Public comments may be submitted to [email protected]

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

Monday’s delay was the fourth time the MSCC has put off making a determination on the issue. The Michigan Capitol’s lack of firearm regulation was thrust into the public spotlight in April, when armed right-wing protesters brandished long guns in the Senate gallery while lawmakers sat in session below.

After that, Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote a formal opinion confirming that the MSCC has the legal authority to establish firearm restrictions at the Capitol. 

The MSCC — which is typically engaged with issues like building restoration and grounds maintenance — first met to discuss the issue on May 11, but some members expressed lingering concerns about the legality of such a decision.

The next meeting on May 30 ended with a vote for the panel to hire an outside attorney to affirm Nessel’s opinion. A mid-June meeting to discuss the attorney’s findings was pushed back until June 30, at which former Michigan Chief Deputy Attorney General Gary Gordon confirmed that the MSCC has the legal right to regulate firearms at the Capitol building and grounds.

“The legal opinions by Attorney General Nessel and the Michigan State Capitol Commission’s hired legal counsel are clear: The commission has the authority to prohibit firearms in our Capitol building. If and when commissioners choose to do so is up to them, but delaying action only allows the risk of harm for those working in the Capitol,” Nessel spokesperson Ryan Jarvi said Tuesday.

Another meeting, another delay on banning guns at the Capitol

Commissioner and Capitol historian Kerry Chartkoff did not respond to a request for comment.

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) took a photo of the armed protesters looking down at the Senate gallery that went viral. She told the Advance Monday that while she was “disappointed” to hear of the meeting delay, she is “confident that the commission will ultimately do the right thing by using their legal authority to prohibit firearms in our Capitol building.

“They have conceded that they have the legal authority to do this, so I am hoping the delay is purely for logistical reasons,” Polehanki said.

State Sens. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), who also have asked the panel to make a swift determination and consider banning symbols of hate at the Capitol, like Confederate flags, did not return requests for comment.

After the MSCC’s last meeting on June 30, Vice Chair John Truscott and Commissioner Bill Kandler agreed to begin meeting with the Michigan State Police, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office and legislative leadership to gather information and formulate next steps.

Truscott and Kandler will use that information to present a recommendation at the next MSCC meeting.

Panel punts on Capitol gun ban, another right-wing protest planned for Thursday

Bauer said that if the recommendation is completed ahead of schedule, a special meeting could be called before Aug. 10 and the committee could vote then.

Though she concedes that these things take time and the panel should be thorough, Bauer said she would be “very pleased” if Truscott and Kandler did finish early, “so that we could get moving on this.”

But: “If for some reason we’re not ready by [Aug. 10], then I will not be happy. I mean, that’s about six weeks from the time of our last meeting,” Bauer said.

“Easy for me to say because I’m not one of those two people, but it is a lot of work. And we do want to be sure that we have checked that we have adequate information to proceed.”

Bauer says there are at least three other members on the panel who share her sense of urgency about implementing gun restrictions, although she declined to say which ones.

“The other three, I’m not sure,” Bauer said — although “everybody has said that they have great concerns about having guns in the Capitol.”

Nessel tells commission it can ban guns in state Capitol

If the panel does decide to impose some sort of firearm restriction, there are many options to choose from. Some states like Alabama and Connecticut prohibit all guns from capitol buildings outright. Other states, including Minnesota and Oregon, only allow licensed concealed carry permittees to bring a gun into their capitols.

Some states like South Dakota have more specific restrictions, like requiring concealed carry permittees to give advance notice and obtain permission before bringing a firearm into the building.

With this in mind, Bauer said a decision to regulate firearms in the Capitol at least to some degree should not be seen as far-fetched.

“This isn’t some outlandish idea that is out of step with Americans,” Baur said. “People are shocked that we allow [guns inside], when we have visitors and children and people around the House floor and people who have to work there — especially as emotional decisions are being made” in the state Legislature.

Any decision to establish a new firearm policy will need the vote of four out of the panel’s six members.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).