A commission with the responsibility of maintaining Michigan’s State Capitol building voted Monday to study whether it can — or should — bar firearms from the grounds.
The unanimous 6-0 vote by the members of the Michigan Capitol Commission came with questions being asked in the wake of an April 30 protest that saw several people bring guns into the Capitol and some lawmakers express concerns of intimidation.
On a motion by Margaret O’Brien, who is the secretary of the state Senate and a member of the commission, the panel created a five-member committee to study whether it can prohibit firearms and discuss the issue with legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.
Gary Randall, the clerk of the state House of Representatives and the chairman of the Capitol Commission, promised to meet soon and take an “aggressive” schedule toward resolving the issue.
“We’ve been thrown into an issue that by its very nature has political implications,” said Randall, who noted that the commission — which typically concerns itself more with upkeep of the Capitol, planting flowers and maintaining artworks on the grounds — has been largely nonpartisan since its formation six years ago.
As Monday’s meeting of the commission wrapped up, the panel, which was holding its meeting through a teleconferencing portal, reacted to a series of what several of them described as “inappropriate comments” being posted by listeners and wondered aloud how to block them without ending the meeting. “We have some people who have infiltrated the meeting… who are threatening legislators and individual committee members,” O’Brien said as a motion was voted on to quickly end the meeting.
It only served to underscore the tensions in Michigan created by the protests over Whitmer’s actions to combat the spread of coronavirus that have suddenly thrust the Capitol Commission into the spotlight.
Earlier on Monday, state Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a formal opinion saying that the Capitol Commission had the authority to prohibit firearms in the Capitol without the need for the state Legislature to vote on a law doing so.
“The Commission … is a statutorily created instrumentality of state government, vested with broad authority to ‘operate and manage’ the Capitol site,” she wrote.
Amy Shaw, who serves as legal counsel to the Capitol Commission, objected to that characterization, however, saying that its powers are limited to docent tours, maintaining chandeliers and planting flowers. “The Capitol Commission does not set public policy, the Legislature does,” she said. “This justifies further in-depth and sensitive review.”
Nessel’s opinion, meanwhile, is only of an advisory nature given that the commission, which includes appointees of the governor, House clerk and Senate secretary, is independent.
While it was far from clear whether the commission would decide to take any action, it was clear that several members felt strongly that firearms should not be allowed in the Capitol. John Truscott, a Republican and the panel’s vice chairman, said, “I don’t like seeing weapons in the building … but I think we have to be very careful in overstepping our bounds” and could find themselves in a court battle or taking on additional liability.
Kerry Chartkoff, the historian emeritus of the Capitol, said even signs on sticks have been banned inside the building because of the damage that they can do and there is no question the commission has to consider the safety of visitors and workers in the building.
“My concern about the recent issues are the fact that people are open carrying into the building,” she said. “I take this extremely seriously. I don’t like what I’ve seen in the news… but we can’t do it in haste.”
Gun rights activists argued they were exercising their Second Amendment freedoms, and that under longstanding rules, firearms have been allowed in the Capitol.
But some lawmakers went so far as to don bulletproof vests as they expressed concerns for their safety. “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us,” state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, posted on Twitter, along with a photo.
After Monday’s vote, state Sens. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, and Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, put out a statement criticizing the commission for what they considered an unnecessary delay and saying it is “putting the health and safety of legislators, staff, Capitol employees and visiting guests from the general public at dire risk.”
“It’s irresponsible and we expect better from those entrusted with the care of the people’s building and all who pass through it,” they said.
Contact Todd Spangler at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.
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