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

AG issues formal opinion that guns can be barred

Open carry rally at the Michigan Capitol, Sept. 10, 2019 | Claire Moore
Updated, 5:36 p.m. 5/11/20, with remarks from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The hotly debated issue of whether to prohibit firearms at the Michigan Capitol found itself Monday in the hands of a commission usually focused on building restoration and grounds maintenance.

That panel, the Michigan State Capitol Commission (MSCC), chose not to make an immediate decision. This leaves the Capitol’s current open-carry policies unchanged ahead of more threats to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and another right-wing protest planned for Thursday, which Democratic lawmakers are worried could lead to violence.

Instead, after more than an hour of debate — during which the panel’s hired legal counsel was criticized for offering political commentary rather than substantive advice — commissioners chose to create a smaller committee to study the issue further.

MSCC Chair Gary Randall, the clerk of the House of Representatives, said the committee will meet as early as next week.

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Four of the six committee members are appointed by Randall and Senate Secretary Margaret O’Brien, who work for GOP leadership in addition to both being former Republican lawmakers themselves. The last two members are appointed by the governor.

For many commissioners, the biggest question was MSCC’s legal authority to even make such a decision in the first place.

This question remains, despite a formal legal opinion on Monday from Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, that the MSCC does have the authority to set such a policy, which followed a letter to the commission on Friday arguing the same.

In a tweet ahead of Monday’s meeting, Nessel wrote that a decision not to act would not be “because they lack the legal authority to do so, but rather because they lack the will to take the necessary action required to protect the lives of those who work at and visit our State Capitol.”

But members still expressed doubts. MSCC Vice Chair John Truscott, who has worked for many Republicans and serves as president of the Lansing-based PR firm Truscott-Rossman, said he worries that acting on such an authority could open the committee up to liability and could lead to an injunction being filed.

“We were not appointed to get involved in politics or to make political decisions, but that’s where we find ourselves,” Truscott said.

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Truscott said he also wanted to review opinions of previous attorney generals on the matter before deciding, and supports the idea of having an independent review done.

But most, including Truscott, agreed that some sort of action needs to be taken to ensure a safe environment for staff and visitors in the state Capitol.

Randall reiterated that the MSCC was created with the aim of having a nonpartisan panel with full control over the Capitol building and square. 

“I have to tell you, not in our wildest dreams did we ever think that the Capitol Commission would be looking at a situation like we’re looking at today,” Randall said, in which the committee would be in the position of having to interpret state law and hand down a ruling on it.

Randall mentioned the legal opinion from Nessel insisting that the panel does have the authority to make such a decision. He also read an excerpt from a letter Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) sent to the MSCC Monday morning.

Shirkey’s letter requests the “delay of a formal decision” at Monday’s meeting, and instead asks the members to meet with GOP leadership, Senate and House sergeants-at-arms and the Michigan State Police to discuss policy options.

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The Republican-controlled state Legislature has taken up a number of gun-friendly measures in the last year, while punting on some Democratic-introduced gun safety bills that still remain in committee.

In October, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) had sent a formal directive to state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) demanding that she immediately remove a sign on her office door stating that it was a “gun-free” zone during open carry day.

It is unclear whether commissioners will take Shirkey up on his request to meet, although they did agree on the delay. Most members focused their comments on the issue of weighing valid safety concerns with the worry that the commission may be overstepping its authority or making a hasty decision.

The attorney hired by the commission to help clarify that question, Amy Shaw, did not mince words in warning the MSCC against taking any action at all. After slamming the media for what she termed “false narratives” surrounding the issue, Shaw described any attempt from the MSCC to make a decision Monday as a “hail Mary” attempt for something beyond the committee’s purview.

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Shaw is a staffer in the office of Senate Majority Floor Leader Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford).

“A policy decision of this magnitude rests with the lawmaking body of the state Legislature,” Shaw said. “… This extremely sensitive issue should be left to the legislative determination. A hasty and unlawful decision on this important topic would be unwise.”

Shaw’s remarks prompted swift criticism from Commissioner Bill Kandler, a longtime Lansing lobbyist and former secretary of the Senate who was appointed to the panel by Whitmer. Kandler said he was disappointed to hear Shaw offering “political commentary” rather than nonpartisan legal advice.

“That was not legal advice. … I know you’re capable, but I don’t know why we got political commentary included in that,” Kandler said.

“Hopefully, maybe, we can work this through as the commission always has, [with] a purely objective review of what the law is,” he added.

O’Brien’s move to create a special committee to study the issue further was adopted by the end of the meeting. A schedule for the committee meetings has not yet been set, but Chair Gary Randall said one will be set for next week depending on members’ availability.

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The call was cut short after commissioners flagged that racist and offensive comments were being circulated in the Zoom meeting’s public chat function.

O’Brien said that the committee will allow members to consider a decision more comprehensively, and perhaps even look at issues stemming from the 2012 Right to Work protests at the Capitol, like signs being banned.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) introduced legislation in September to allow signs in the building, but it has since been stuck in committee.

Moss told the Advance that the lack of action Monday shows “total inconsistency from the Michigan [State] Capitol Commission, which claims that it can’t set policy on this when the attorney general specifically said they can — and on other things, they are heavy-handed on setting policy,” Moss said. He pointed to the ban on signs as well as the MSCC’s decision to not allow a larger Menorah on the Capitol lawn last year.

Moss said he’s not sure how meaningful any action next week will be, considering another armed protest is happening just days from now.

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“Every day since April 30 that we’ve been in session, we’ve had armed people inside the state Capitol,” Moss said. “So, this is an ongoing threat to our ability to conduct business here.” He added that the situation has only been inflamed by early-morning, “all-caps posts” from Shirkey on Facebook that have offered little in the way of calm leadership.

Other Democratic legislators expressed concerns about the risks of another armed protest Thursday, especially after posts on the “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” Facebook group first reported by the Metro Times suggest the event could result in violence.

Other anti-quarantine Facebook groups have contained personal threats against Whitmer, some of which call for her assassination.

Whitmer was asked about the threats and Republican leaders’ response during her COVID-19 press briefing Monday afternoon.

“I’m concerned about the safety of people who continue to demonstrate and congregate without wearing masks … and I’m increasingly concerned about the violent nature of their extreme comments,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer called on Republican leadership, as well as “anyone on the other side of the aisle” with an official title or platform to step up and denounce the threats.

“I would appreciate it if others would do their part to try to lower the heat,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer also remarked during the press update that she is “very disappointed that the Capitol Commission didn’t take action today to keep legislators safe.” *

The two previous protests in April included Confederate flags, AR-style rifles and swastikas, as well as violent props. The April 15 demonstration featured a doll in a noose symbolizing Whitmer and signs with threats like “Tyrants Get the Rope.”

State House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) wrote in a statement after Monday’s meeting that she is “appalled at the Capitol Commission’s decision to shirk their responsibility,” and said the outcome “smacks of partisanship” and a “stunning disregard for public safety.”

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“The Michigan State Capitol Commission must not delay a decision to prohibit firearms within the Capitol to appease Republican leadership,” Greig said. “With very real threats of the continued presence of assault style weapons at future meetings of the legislature, and numerous and many specific threats of violence against legislators and statewide officials, this matter is not resolved. We must ensure the safety and security of everyone who enters our State Capitol.”

The Michigan House Democratic Caucus as a whole had formally requested Friday that the MSCC prohibit firearms at the Capitol.

State Sens. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), who previously spoke out about the decision of state Sen. Dale Zorn’s (R-Ida) to wear a Confederate flag-patterned face mask onto the chamber floor last month, also wrote to the commission Wednesday urging that the panel prohibit Nazi symbols, hangman nooses and Confederate flags on the Capitol grounds.

After the commission adjourned with neither decision on firearms nor a mention about Santana’s and Geiss’ letter, the Democratic lawmakers sent out a joint statement condemning the panel’s inaction.

“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. It’s irresponsible, and we expect better from those entrusted with the care of the people’s building and all who pass through it,” the joint statement reads.