Ongoing updates: Plot to kidnap Whitmer | Who's charged, what's next?
LANSING — A long gun strapped across his back, William Null stood in the Michigan Capitol rotunda, shouting “freedom” and encouraging protesters a floor below to rush the state House chambers, when a man near him confided: “I’m not going to lie, if shooting starts, I’m heading up north.”
“Not me, dude,” Null replied. “I’m going to have fun hunting.”
They both laughed.
Null live-streamed the exchange on April 30, five months before he was arrested last week on domestic terrorism charges as part of what state police say were plots to storm the Capitol and take hostages, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. He is accused of helping surveil Whitmer’s vacation home in September ahead of a planned kidnapping.
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At least five of the 13 men facing state and federal charges were at the Michigan Capitol that day as protesters railed against Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders. The Legislature was contemplating her request to extend a state of emergency, which the Republican majority eventually rejected while announcing plans to sue the governor instead.
At one point, Null and others stood with long guns in the Senate gallery as lawmakers and their staff worked below, prompting at least one Democratic lawmaker to don a bulletproof vest at her desk on the floor.
Other protesters gathered outside the House chambers demanding security open the doors.
“Finally, some Michiganders in here throwing a fit,” Null says during the video.
“There are a lot of people here that are hungry, and they’re tired of this tyrannical b-llsh-t. People need to wake the hell up. This isn’t about a virus… Quit being sheep and get the f-ck off your ass.”
The demonstration made national news and sparked calls for a gun ban at the Capitol, where visitors cannot carry signs into the building but anyone can bring their AR-15s. Michigan is among a handful of states where officials do not regulate firearms inside their Capitol building.
Democrats calling for a gun ban amplified their demands this week, but Republicans who control the Legislature and Michigan Capitol Commission have given no indication they are willing to act.
A top Republican appointee on the Michigan Capitol Commission told Bridge Michigan on Wednesday that the unelected panel is hoping the Legislature will move to adopt a new firearms policy.
But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, last week suggested it’s the commission’s responsibility to act.
“Banning guns at the Capitol is part of the Capitol Commission’s contemplation based on the responsibility they’ve been given by the attorney general,” Shirkey told MIRS subscription news service shortly after the Whitmer kidnapping charges were announced. “We’re having further conversations.”
Legislature, commission could act
While legal experts say the Capitol Commission has the authority to prohibit guns in common areas of the Capitol, GOP leaders have intervened in the panel’s deliberations. Last month, shortly before commissioners were set to discuss the issue, Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield requested a meeting that derailed planned votes.
The legislative leaders met roughly two weeks ago with Capitol Commissioners William Kandler and John Truscott, who called it a “very productive conversation” but said Wednesday he’s still waiting to see “what they’re willing to do.”
“We reiterated that we believe this is a legislative matter and not a commission matter,” Truscott said. “And we’d like to, as I know they would, preserve the legislative authority on things like this.”
The six-member commission, which is led by GOP appointees but also includes two members appointed by Whitmer, later cancelled its monthly meeting for October because it had no action items to discuss, Truscott said.
They are expected to meet in November instead.
Kandler, one of two Whitmer appointees, said Wednesday he still “does not have the votes” for his proposal to ban openly carried weapons at the Capitol. And passing a full ban would mean little, he said, because the Legislature would need to give the commission funds to install metal detectors and X-ray machines.
“We could act, but it would be dishonest to say we banned guns because we can’t make it happen,” Kandler told Bridge. “Either the Legislature could do something, which would probably be best, or they could appropriate the money to us to do it if they wanted to.”
Truscott said it’s “disturbing” that Null was part of the April 30 protest.
But the commission was established to focus on more innocuous matters, like building maintenance and landscaping, Truscott said.
“The only political consideration is that we are not a policymaking or political body, and we’re trying to stay away from that,” he said. “So that's in the back of my mind. I don't want to venture into an area where a lot of people are making policy decisions.”
Shirkey and Chatfield have both condemned the Whitmer kidnapping plot, but they are also strong Second Amendment advocates, and neither has publicly indicated serious consideration to a full or partial Capitol gun ban. Both spoke at a separate anti-Whitmer rally the day U.S. Attorneys announced the kidnapping charges.
Chatfield “believes there’s got to be a way to protect citizens’ constitutional rights and their ability to visit the Capitol, while also improving safety procedures and finding a way to keep people safe as much as possible,” said spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro. “He’s working to find a policy that does both.”
Shirkey, in a brief interview last week, told MIRS “there's no way in a country like ours we can legislate and get rid of all risk.” If lawmakers did, “it would not be a country that any of us like, nor would we recognize,” he said.
That’s not good enough for Democrats, who this week blasted Republican leadership for inaction on what they call a workplace safety issue for the state’s 148 lawmakers and their staffers.
“We know that some of the suspects stood in that gallery just months ago, clutching weapons that could take us all out in a matter of minutes,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said early Wednesday during a marathon legislative session.
“Colleagues, I’d like to know what Second Amendment tradition does that honor?”
“Banning guns in this building should be the simplest item on our agenda,” Ananich said.
Separately, House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, on Monday wrote Chatfield and urged him to ban guns in the Capitol and require face masks in the lower chamber, which she described as two “pressing workplace safety issues that endanger both members and staff.”
“The recently revealed plot by the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap the governor and seize control of state government, a plan that included harming legislators, is perhaps the best evidence to date of the need to ban firearms in both the Capitol and House Office Buildings,” Greig wrote.
“Must we wait until tragedy strikes our statehouse for action from you?”
Right wing or left wing, it’s the ‘same bird’
Null began his April 30 video from the Senate gallery, where he and at least three other armed men hovered over lawmakers as they worked below.
Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, snapped a photo of the men and posted it on Twitter in an image that went viral.
The scene prompted Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, to wear a bulletproof vest at her desk later in the day. Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, has said he’s worn one to work in the Capitol most days since.
In his video, Null lambasted the Democratic governor, the Republican-led Legislature and “red coat” House sergeants who were working to maintain order. At one point, Null filmed what he called a “Trumper” activist wagging his finger at Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey in a third-floor hallway.
“When you have a right wing and a left wing, you’re still talking the damn same bird,” he said in the video.
“You’re flying the same ship. The Republicans, the Democrats, they’re all falling for this f--king b-llshit game. I feel like I’m a libertarian, but I’m still riding the goddamn bird down.”
Shirkey encouraged peaceful protests but called some of the demonstrators “jackasses.” They “used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor,” he said at the time. “I condemn their behavior and denounce their tactics.”
Null described himself as a member of the Barry County-based Michigan Liberty Militia, but he’s accused of working with a separate anti-government group called the Wolverine Watchmen.
State police allege that in September, Null and his twin brother acted as lookouts for other men who staked out Whitmer’s northern Michigan vacation home ahead of a potential kidnapping.
Damian Nunzio, Null’s defense attorney, declined to comment on the case Wednesday. Null lives in Shelbyville but was arraigned last week in Antrim County, where the surveillance allegedly took place. A magistrate set his bond at $250,000 and prohibited him from coming within 500 yards of Whitmer while the case moves forward.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has confirmed Null and his identical twin brother were at the anti-Whitmer rally in late April that first prompted debate over a gun ban.
WOOD-TV eight interviewed three other state and federal suspects outside the Capitol that day, including alleged kidnapping plot leader Adam Fox. A reporter asked them why they wore wearing Hawaiin shirts, widely associated with the Boogaloo, a meme-based anti-government movement Wolverine Watchmen leaders allegedly had ties to.
The FBI alleges that Fox and Wolverine Watchmen leader Ty Garbin met at a separate militia rally at the Michigan Capitol on June 18, where Fox said “he planned to attack the Capitol and asked them to combine forces.”
In his April 30 video, Null complained about both political parties. When the Republican-led Senate went to recess, he called them “cowards” and suggested they were afraid to upset “people with guns,” like himself.
“It’s pretty clear they just want to shut us down and imprison us again,” Null said. “There’s probably 2,000 people here, and they dont’ want that problem. They’re pushing it off, showing their true colors.”