House Dems seek to abolish Capitol Commission, citing inaction on gun ban

By: - September 18, 2020 3:52 pm

Michigan Militia at the Second Amendment March at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

A group of House Democrats announced late Thursday that they are moving to dissolve a small historic maintenance panel tasked with coming up with a firearms policy for Michigan’s state Capitol.

The five-bill package to abolish the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC) comes in response to what the lawmakers are calling “deliberate and continued delay tactics” from the panel on whether to ban guns from the building.

“As the Michigan Capitol Commission has shown a sustained and willful disregard to exercise their authority to protect the safety of everyone who works and visits our State Capitol building including thousands of school children each year, the Capitol Commission’s responsibilities must be returned to the Legislative Council,” House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) said in a statement Thursday.

The MSCC has been debating the issue of banning firearms from the state Capitol since May, after being prompted to do so by a tense meeting of worlds between armed right-wing protesters and lawmakers in session. Michigan has no restrictions on firearms in its state Capitol.

House Bills 6246-6250, introduced by Greig, state Reps. Kara Hope (D-Holt), Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) and Robert Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods), will be officially read in during the next legislative session.

The legislation would hand over exclusive control of the Michigan State Capitol Historic Site to the Michigan Legislative Council.

Given the GOP-heavy makeup of the Legislative Council (eight Republicans vs. four Democrats), it is not clear whether a new gun policy would be adopted by the group of legislators any faster than the MSCC, if at all.

But House Democrats Press Secretary Aneta Kiersnowski said the bill package is intended to ensure a higher level of accountability for the people making the decision — whatever that decision may be.

“Right now the Capitol Commission is effectively controlled by the speaker [Lee Chatfield (R-Levering)] and majority leader [Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake)] … but the speaker and majority leader are not held to account because the unelected Capitol Commission is publicly pulling the levers directed in private by the Republicans, not the Republicans themselves,” Kiersnowski said.

“The members of the Legislative Council are elected officials who have to stand for election. In short, the bills are about drawing attention to who is really pulling the strings here and endangering people. Either way, the Republicans seem intent on failing to protect people. Under our plan, they can be held accountable for that choice,” she added.

Spokespersons for Shirkey and Chatfield did not respond to requests for comment.

Capitol Commission members last met on Monday to discuss fact-finding on implementing a firearms policy but adjourned again without a firm plan in place, marking the sixth time the MSCC had delayed the decision.

Attorney General Dana Nessel had confirmed in May that the MSCC has the legal authority to ban firearms at the state Capitol — a legal opinion which was then echoed by outside counsel and former Michigan chief Deputy Attorney General Gary Gordon, who was hired by the commission to confirm its powers.

During that meeting, state Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) gave emotional testimony about what Black lawmakers like her have faced.

“The New Yorker and other publications have interviewed white supremacists that come from all over the country because their capitol buildings do not allow guns, and they come to Michigan because we do,” said Anthony. “And I am sorry, but when those white supremacists come into this building, they are targeting people that look like Rep. Carter and I. We are terrified.”

The bills would shift all current powers and responsibilities of the MSCC over to the Michigan Legislative Council, including: administrative power over all functions historically performed by the MSCC (personnel and office expenses included), management and operation of the state Capitol building and grounds, responsibility of veteran recognitions, and responsibility for producing annual reports on Capitol building maintenance and project costs.

The MSCC this week narrowly voted down two motions for immediately banning all firearms from the Capitol and to ban open carry from the building. Dissenting members cited their desire to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) — who requested a meeting — before making a decision.

MSCC Chair Gary Randall, the clerk of the House, did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether that meeting has been scheduled yet.

On Thursday, a number of pro-gun groups held their annual rally at the Capitol, but the House and Senate canceled session. 

The Michigan Legislative Council is a 12-member, bipartisan body of legislators. Half of the members are appointed by the House speaker, while the other half are appointed by the Senate majority leader. Three “alternate” members are also appointed for each chamber. Operations include providing bill drafting, research and other services to lawmakers. 

Currently, the council is composed of co-chairs Chatfield and Shirkey; state Reps. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron), Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.), Jason Wentworth (R-Clare), Cara Clemente (D-Lincoln Park) and Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor); and state Sens. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), Jim Ananich (D-Flint) and Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).

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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).