Advance investigation: Michigan joins just 2 other states without Capitol firearm regulations

By: - January 11, 2021 5:08 am

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Updated, 10:05 a.m., 1/11/21

A months-long investigation by the Advance has revealed that Michigan is one of only three states with virtually no firearm regulations or security measures in place for its state Capitol.

The Advance contacted officials and agencies in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., to gather their most recent capitol building firearm policies for the only known countrywide database with this information. 

The Michigan Capitol building’s lack of firearm rules have long been a cause for concern for some lawmakers, journalists and state employees who frequent the building. But this became a major flashpoint in late April, when armed right-wing protesters entered the state Capitol during session and loomed over lawmakers and staff from the Senate gallery with semi-automatic-style rifles, making international headlines. An Advance reporter was hit by one of the protesters’ guns while reporting inside the building. 

Armed protests against COVID-19 restrictions — and later, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s victory — have been held regularly at the Capitol, occasionally causing legislative leadership to cancel session. 

In October, state and federal law enforcement announced a foiled right-wing terrorist plot to kidnap and execute Whitmer, take other government officials hostage at the Capitol and possibly burn the building down.

Most recently, a bomb threat shut down the building last week.

As these events have unfolded, gun reform advocates have argued that Michigan is an outlier among states for its firearms policy — and thus has become an attractive target for bad actors. They’ve also noted that signs are banned from the building.

“From the very first time armed extremists showed up at the Michigan Capitol to intimate lawmakers — proudly displaying Confederate flags and nooses — we knew they were a real and imminent threat to the safety of Michiganders and to our democracy,” said Emily Durbin, volunteer with the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Calls for building security measures from mostly Democratic officials, including Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have been constant in the last eight months, and have only ramped up in Michigan and elsewhere since thousands of President Donald Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol last week, ransacked the building and allegedly hunted down members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to stop the election from being certified. 

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The insurrection left five people dead, including a police officer.

Other states across the country have also faced frequent right-wing demonstrations since COVID-19 orders began last spring, with some escalating since Trump lost to Biden and refused to concede until after the U.S. Capitol invasion.

In Michigan, the GOP-led Legislature could take action to ban guns in the Capitol, but leadership staunchly refused to take action, citing their strong belief in the Second Amendment. (Now-former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) even had to pay a fine in 2019 for attempting to carry a loaded handgun on a plane.) 

Following the D.C. melee, however, Senate Majority Mike Shirkey (R-Shirkey) for the first time endorsed barring open carry in Michigan’s Capitol. Many Democratic lawmakers have said that doesn’t go far enough, as those who have a concealed carry license could easily carry out a massacre. It is not yet clear whether new House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) will back restrictions.

On Thursday, Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) said on Twitter that just implementing an open carry ban would not be “a viable option to keep us/visitors safe.”

“All this does is prevent embarrassing photos from going viral,” Polehanki wrote.

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There’s also a small panel that has the ability to put Capitol gun restrictions in place, but has repeatedly refused to do so. Michigan State Capitol Commission Vice Chair John Truscott told the Advance Shirkey’s change of heart was “absolutely helpful” and the body has pushed up its scheduled meeting to 1 p.m. Monday.*

It will be the first time the commission has met in months, giving hope that some action will finally take place.

How we did it

The Advance sought to find out just how Michigan stacks up to other states on capitol gun policies and security measures. Since there was no national database available through various groups and media outlets, we set out to assemble one.

We contacted officials in all 50 states and D.C. That effort unearthed measures and regulations as varied as the states themselves. 

The Advance spoke to everyone from front desk personnel, state police, constituent services, governor’s offices, state departments, heads of security, tour guides and local reporters to track down each state capitol’s policy — which often was a Byzantine process that took months to complete.

In addition to the fact that a wide variety of entities handle capitol gun policies across states, many state legislatures are also part-time (unlike Michigan’s) and have COVID-19 policies in place currently that result in less staffing — another challenge in the data-gathering process.

The result is this comprehensive database on each state’s capitol firearms policies with notable details.

What we found

While delving into this project, it became apparent that Michigan is not alone in its lax capitol gun rules — but still manages to stand out.

In general terms, a majority — 32 states plus D.C. — prohibit firearms from their state capitols altogether. Various security measures are in place to prevent guns from entering.

Nine states have varied restrictions. Most of these allow valid concealed carry licensees only to bring in guns, while one (Nebraska) allows only open carry.

Along with Michigan, nine other state capitols allow both open and concealed carry into the building; Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington also fall into that category.

Map of firearm policies at each state capitol | Laina G. Stebbins

However, Michigan is one of only three states of those nine that lack related security measures of any kind, such as metal detectors or security screenings. Oregon’s and Utah’s capitols similarly lack any such measures.

Oregon’s legislature was shut down in June 2019 by an armed self-proclaimed militia, which boasted support from some GOP lawmakers. On Dec. 21, protesters opposing COVID-19 restrictions disrupted a special legislative session at the Oregon Statehouse, broke glass doors, attacked reporters and forced their way into the Capitol. One reportedly used pepper spray on police officers.

Security footage also showed Republican state Rep. Mike Nearman opening doors for some of the violent demonstrators to enter the building.

An angry mob of Trump supporters gathered again for an unlawful assembly at the statehouse on Wednesday to protest Trump’s loss and burn a life-size puppet of Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

Demonstrations at Utah’s capitol building have been peaceful this year.

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For the 18 states that allow at least some firearms to enter the capitol building, many have rules still prohibiting firearms in certain areas like legislative galleries and chambers. Other security variances include: having to declare your firearms with security (Kentucky), requiring a permit for both open and concealed carry (Tennessee), entering through a special capitol entrance for licensed firearm owners (Texas) and requiring concealed carry permittees to give advance notice and obtain permission before bringing a firearm into the building (South Dakota).

As for Michigan lacking anything of the sort, “It’s unsurprising to me,” Attorney General Nessel told the Advance. “I’m horrified in regard to your findings, but am I surprised? Absolutely not, unfortunately.”

Security is lax at the Michigan Capitol, which lacks metal detectors or bag checks as are required at many other state buildings or even across the street at Lansing City Hall. On a typical day, one or two Capitol police officers are the primary security. The sergeants-at-arms provide security for lawmakers.

Many employees in other states, upon hearing a Michigan reporter ask about gun policies, would take on an apologetic tone and say something to the effect of, “We’ve heard all about what’s happening in your state.”

One particularly helpful front desk employee at the Arizona state Capitol laid out all of the security measures in place for the capitol complex and grounds, from gun lockers to security personnel regularly stationed on roofs during demonstrations. He laughed and said, “We’re not like Michigan; we don’t let you come in and scream in our faces.” 

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Nessel has had similar conversations with her peers.

“[Other state attorneys general] speak to me with a sense of, they feel sorry for me that I’m from the state of Michigan,” Nessel said. “You know, ‘That must be so hard for you to have to represent a state like that.’”

“… The rise in extremist groups is a great stain upon our state. But the thing we should be proud of should be our reaction to that, and our ability to contain and control extremist groups. But it’s so fundamentally unhelpful when you have members of the Legislature that seem to support these actions,” Nessel said, referencing GOP state lawmakers who have fanned the flames of pro-Trump extremism by continuing to cast doubt on the election.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, white supremacist extremists remain the deadliest domestic terror threat to the United States.

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Action repeatedly delayed in Michigan

Exactly eight months ago — on May 11, 2020 — the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC) first met to discuss the issue after armed anti-Whitmer protestors intimidated lawmakers during session.

The six-member panel consists of Chair Gary Randall, clerk of the GOP-led state House; Vice-Chair John Truscott, a Republican political consultant and president of Lansing’s Truscott-Rossman PR firm; Joan Bauer, a Democratic former lawmaker; Kerry Chartkoff, the Capitol historian emeritus; Bill Kandler, a longtime Lansing lobbyist who once worked for Democratic former Gov. James Blanchard; and Secretary of the GOP-led Senate Margaret O’Brien.

Both Bauer and Kandler were appointed in 2019 by Whitmer.

Since May 11, the MSCC has had the opportunity to take action but decided instead to delay at least nine times. Five of the panel’s regularly scheduled meetings were canceled altogether.

The last time commissioners met was nearly four months ago on Sept. 14.

Delays on gun ban decision by the MSCC 

  • May 11 — first met to discuss the issue; legality concerns expressed
  • May 30 — panel votes to hire outside attorney to affirm authority to regulate guns
  • June 30 — Michigan Chief Deputy Attorney General Gary Gordon confirms MSCC has legal right to regulate firearms at Capitol; Truscott and Kandler embark on plan to meet with government leaders to formulate next steps
  • July 13 — meeting canceled
  • Aug. 10 — meeting canceled
  • Sept. 14 — panel meets to discuss information gathered by Truscott and Kandler; adjourns with plan to meet with GOP legislative leadership
  • Oct. 5 — meeting canceled
  • Nov. 9 — meeting canceled
  • Dec. 14 — meeting canceled

One of the many sticking points in stalled deliberations by the MSCC has been the concern that installing new security technology like a magnetometer might tarnish the historic authenticity of the 143-year-old building.

But the Advance’s investigation found that many state capitols much older than Michigan’s — in fact, the great majority of them — have accepted that trade-off.

“What I feel like interferes, I think, with the experience that you would have at the Capitol and seeing the historic paintings and woodworking and the dome and all the beauty of it, would be splattered brain matter,” Nessel said.

“Honestly, it is such a ridiculous thing to say that we won’t protect people’s lives because it interferes with the authenticity of the historic nature of a building.”

Another sticking point is whether to ban just open carry or prohibit all firearms altogether. Most MSCC members publicly support a ban on open carry for logistical reasons, as it would be easy and cheap to regulate.

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Banning concealed carry, however, would necessitate installing magnetometers and more security personnel to overlook screenings. Members have expressed concerns about how big of a logistical and financial undertaking this would be. 

After eight months of delays, the MSCC is slated to convene Monday morning for a special meeting regarding a gun ban. Any decision to establish a new firearm policy would need the vote of four out of the panel’s six members.

The Advance shared the investigation’s findings with Truscott on Sunday, but he declined to comment directly ahead of Monday’s meeting.

“All I can tell you is that this is a special meeting, and the only item on the agenda is weapons. So this is not a regular meeting. Regular meeting is the 25th [of January],” Truscott said. “So this is the only issue we’re dealing with tomorrow, so you can draw your conclusions from that.”

Truscott added that, through his and Kandler’s months of research into the issue, they found that the vast majority of states have handled capitol gun regulation through legislation and only a couple did via executive action.

“Nobody has done it with an unelected body. We’ve been put in a very unusual position, very different than any other state,” Truscott said.

The 101st Legislature holds its first session day on Wednesday.

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Pressure on for concealed weapons ban

Nessel wrote a legal opinion in May confirming that the MSCC has the power to regulate guns in the state Capitol that has been set aside — for now. She argues that simply banning open carry would not be enough.

“A gun that is removed from being concealed under your coat or your jacket can kill you just as easily and just as quickly as a gun that you are open carrying,” Nessel said.

“That’s like saying, ‘How about this? You’ll only get shot four times instead of getting shot eight times. Does that make you happy?’ That will [only] lessen the firepower a little bit. I mean, look at all the mass shootings that have taken place just using semi-automatics that somebody had concealed,” Nessel added.

Democrats in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature have also spoken out for a ban on firearms to go further than just open carry. Those include Polehanki; state Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak); state Reps. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) and more.

Black lawmakers have repeatedly spoken out about being singled out for threats by white supremacists and other extremists.

Polehanki, who tweeted a picture of armed protesters in the Senate in April that went viral, posted a picture to Twitter Sunday of a bulletproof helmet, gas mask and a can of mace she bought along with a bulletproof vest to keep under her desk in the chamber.

Democratic members have repeatedly expressed concerns that they are risking their lives simply by attending session in the Capitol. Compounding this is the fact that lawmakers are also particularly vulnerable due to a lack of investigation into threats against their lives, as was the case with state Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson (D-Detroit).

Johnson told the Advance on Friday that the Michigan State Police (MSP) had not acted on a credible death threat against her until that same individual was connected to a bomb threat of the state Capitol.

“I know that there are sergeants-at-arms; I know there are MSP [Michigan State Police troopers] there, all the rest of it. But by the time there would be some sort of shooting, it would be too late,” Nessel said. “[Lawmakers] are sitting ducks.”

MSP spokesperson Shanon Banner said in an email that “there are plans in place” in the case of a shooting or other violent incident in the Capitol.

As to whether those plans have been shared with legislative members and staff, Banner said that “specific operational plans are not shared in order to protect the confidential nature of the plans; however, we routinely offer the Speaker and Senate Majority Leader (and any other legislators they choose to invite) the opportunity to receive security briefings for significant pre-planned events.

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“Further, in the past we have offered our services in regards to providing active shooter and other security training for legislators, and in light of recent events, we continue to make this standing offer.”

Banner added that MSP will be increasing its visible presence at the Capitol for the coming weeks starting Monday.

Durbin of Moms Demand Action urged the MSCC to act Monday.

“If the thwarted plot to kidnap our governor didn’t make this crystal clear, the attempted coup at the United States Capitol surely opened more eyes to the threat posed by violent far right extremism. There must be action to prevent further violence and armed intimidation of our lawmakers, constituents, and to ensure the safety of all those who visit the Capitol to peacefully participate in democracy. We continue to urge the Capitol Commission to regulate firearms in our Capitol,” said Durbin.

Nessel also stressed that time is of the essence.

“I consider every day that we go by and there’s not a shooting, there’s not a homicide, there’s not a catastrophic incident in the Capitol, is a day that we’re very lucky,” Nessel said. “And I when I say it’s only a matter of time, I mean, it is only a matter of time.”

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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).

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