Commission enacts open carry ban at Capitol, GOP speaker contests panel’s authority

Concealed carry still permitted, despite calls to outlaw all firearms

By: - January 11, 2021 2:33 pm

Open carry rally at the Michigan Capitol, Sept. 10, 2019 | C.J. Moore

Less than an hour after the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC) passed a long-awaited vote to ban open carry of firearms in the state Capitol, new House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) broke his silence on the action by stating he does not believe the commission has the power to set Capitol policy.

“The Speaker is grateful for the work of the Capitol Commission, but it does not have the authority to set policy in the Capitol. The Speaker will be looking at options for handling that moving forward,” Wentworth said.

“In the meantime, the Michigan State Police will be enforcing the new ruling. In order to ensure there is no confusion in the Capitol, Speaker Wentworth asks everyone to respect the Michigan State Police and the rules they enforce.”

The MSCC met for a brief special meeting on Monday solely to cast a vote on the open carry ban, just days after Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) publicly said he would support the ban. All six members of the bipartisan panel voted for the policy, which has been more than eight months in the making.

But GOP leadership is now apparently split on the new rule. As for the MSCC’s ability to set policy, the body was created in 2013 with governing authority over the building’s operation and management.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel also wrote a formal legal opinion last year confirming that the commission has the power to regulate firearms at the Capitol. An independent legal review commissioned by the MSCC concurred.

According to an FBI bulletin Monday, armed protests are being planned “at all 50 state capitols” from Saturday, Jan. 16 through “at least” Jan. 20. Public fears of gun violence at the Michigan Capitol have been long prevalent, but ramped up considerably after armed right-wing protesters loomed over state senators in session last April.

During the MSCC meeting Monday, members including Chair Gary Randall, the clerk of the House, acknowledged that many lawmakers and members of the public believe that simply banning open carry is not enough. Commissioner Kerry Chartkoff called the action “an important first step.”

“We have gone as far as I think the commission can go with the issue at the present time,” Randall said. “Certainly it’s an issue that can be revisited, but I think we’ve made a significant step toward ensuring the safety of all who come to this Capitol building.”

In a statement following the vote, Nessel made clear that she wants much more to be done.

“Though I appreciate the Commission’s decision today to prohibit the open carry of firearms, it’s only a single step down the long path of reforms that are necessary to make our legislators, state employees and visitors safe in our state Capitol,” Nessel said.

“Firearms – whether explicitly visible or concealed by clothing – possess the same capability to inflict injury and harm on others and only banning open carry does little to meaningfully improve the safety and security of our Capitol. I urge the Commission or our Legislature to take the proper action and pass the necessary reforms that truly take into account the safety of those visiting and working in our Capitol. Today’s actions are simply not enough to do that.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who was the subject of an alleged right-wing extremist assassination plot, praised the vote but renewed her call for a full firearms ban.

“The Capitol Commission’s action to ban open carry guns at the Capitol is a good start, but more action is needed. On a normal day, hundreds of people walk through the Capitol, including groups of fourth graders, teachers and parents on school field trips to learn about state government,” she said. “That’s why we must take action to ban all weapons at the Capitol to keep Michiganders safe. I am hopeful that the Capitol Commission will recognize the need for further action, and I stand ready to assist in implementing this policy to keep Michiganders safe.” 

The ban is effective immediately. Those with a valid concealed pistol license are also prohibited from openly carrying in the Michigan Capitol.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. 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.