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Benson defends Michigan ban on guns at polls, says state police will enforce

Update: Judge: Michigan can’t ban open carry guns on Election Day

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson insisted Tuesday that she has the authority to ban the open carry of guns at polling places, amid increased reluctance from some law enforcement groups about enforcing the new policy. 

Last week, Benson issued guidance that bars openly carried firearms within 100 feet of polling places on Election Day. Those with a concealed carry license can carry guns, except in buildings that already ban concealed carry, such as schools or churches. 

State Republicans and some law enforcement groups have questioned whether Benson has the power to issue such a directive, and some sheriffs have said they won’t enforce it.

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A lawsuit challenging the edict could come as soon as Wednesday, said Steve Dulan, an attorney with the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners, which includes groups such as Michigan Open Carry.

Benson said Tuesday that she’s confident her ban would hold up in court. Her legal authority comes from state laws against voter intimidation as well as state and U.S. constitutional protections of the right to vote, she said, and the rule was crafted with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat. 

“The open carry of firearms can create a threatening environment through both visual and other ways,” Benson told reporters, adding the laws give her the right “to ensure that we are protecting every vote and issuing directives to ensure every voter knows that they will be safe and secure when they vote in person.”

She said the ban doesn’t infringe on the Second Amendment because “those with a license to carry a concealed weapon will continue to be able to do so in places where that’s allowed. 

“This is not a ban on firearms, this is an effort to protect our voters from intimidation, threats and harassment on Election Day itself,” Benson said.

Asked why she felt the ban was necessary, she said it was important that local election officials and law enforcement had clarity on the rules in case of potential voter intimidation, and that voters felt safe and confident voting in-person.

“This issue was beginning to dominate conversations with voters,” she said, especially following recent federal charges of 14 men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ahead of the election. 

Voting rights advocacy groups have also raised concerns after President Donald Trump called upon supporters to show up as poll watchers on Election Day.

Some have raised concerns that Benson’s guidance may actually spur gun rights advocates to show up to the polls who otherwise would have stayed home.

Michigan Sheriffs Association executive director Matt Saxton called the order “a solution in search of a problem” and Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said the “legally ambiguous guidance … could incite others to challenge it on Election Day.”

If local law enforcement doesn’t enforce the rule, the Michigan State Police will, Benson said. 

Over the weekend, Nessel told Showtime’s “The Circus” that the state police would patrol polling locations where they believe sheriffs won’t enforce voter intimidation laws to ensure compliance.  

The controversy arises just two weeks ahead of the November presidential election, when a record-breaking number of voters are expected to cast ballots. 

To date, more than 3 million Michiganders have requested absentee ballots, more than a third of the state’s 7.7 million registered voters. Already, more than 1.5 absentee ballots have been returned.

Nearly 4.8 million people voted total in the 2016 presidential election, Benson said. She expects two-thirds of Michigan voters will vote absentee.

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