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Michigan lawmaker seeks Capitol gun ban ahead of coronavirus protest

Democrats in the Michigan Legislature are continuing their calls for more stringent gun regulations in the state Capitol building ahead of an expected demonstration Thursday that could attract more armed protesters against state coronavirus lockdown orders. 

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, said she would introduce a resolution Tuesday that would call for a ban on firearms in the building, the day after a six-person Capitol commission declined to do so and instead set up another committee to study potential regulations. 

“Intimidating legislators, staff, and visitors with guns during session is an affront to the democratic process,” Polehanki said in a statement. “If the Michigan Capitol Commission is going to squander its opportunity to keep this historical building a safe and inviting place for people of all ages, I am more than happy to continue the call for prohibiting firearms from the Capitol.” 

Visitors and staff in the Michigan Capitol building are currently allowed to openly carry or conceal guns, a policy that returned to the spotlight after an April 30 protest of the restrictions Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put in place intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including a stay-at-home order and closure of businesses and schools. Militia members and other armed demonstrators brought rifles into the Capitol building, pushed to get onto the House floor and stood over lawmakers in the Senate balcony. 

Sen. Sylvia Santana of Detroit wore a bulletproof vest that day; Rep. Sarah Anthony of Lansing came to the building the next week accompanied by an armed escort herself to protest what she said were the protesters’ tactics of “intimidation and fear.”

Resolutions don’t carry the force of law and instead show the Legislature’s sentiment or intent on a given issue. If put up for a vote, it could show where lawmakers stand — but that’s a big if. The majority party in the Legislature (Republicans) determines whether a resolution will come up for consideration and GOP House and Senate leaders have stated their support for gun rights. 

The office of Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning, but on the Senate floor, he Shirkey urged the governor and attorney general to arrest those threatening others and brandishing weapons on a case-by-case basis rather than taking the "cowardly" route of banning guns through the Capitol Commission.

Shirkey and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield are longstanding Second Amendment advocates. Shirkey wrote on Facebook after the April 30 protest that he appreciated those who demonstrated safely but said those who “used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor” were “a bunch of jackasses.”

Still, Shirkey sent a letter to the Capitol Commission Tuesday morning urging them to delay a commission vote on gun access in the Capitol as commission members weigh the balance between what he said is a citizen’s right to freely demonstrate at the capitol with lawmakers’ expectation of personal safety. 

“This topic has already generated much debate as it is an issue with passionate advocates on both sides,” Shirkey said. “As you know, there is rarely a clear policy solution when a debate of individual liberties intersects with concerns about individual safety and security.”

Members of the Republican-dominated commission questioned whether they have the legal authority to pass a ban, despite Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel weighing in Friday with a formal opinion concluding that they do. Shortly before the commission was set to meet Monday, she tweeted that if they choose not to ban guns “it will not be because they lack the legal authority to do so, but rather because they lack the will.”

Democratic lawmakers expressed frustration with the commission’s decision to wait to decide on Capitol gun policy — though chairman Gary Randall said Monday it was not trying to “stonewall” the debate — in light of another protest scheduled by Michigan United for Liberty in Lansing on Thursday. 

Detroit Metro Times reported Monday that private, anti-quarantine Facebook groups shared violent threats against officials, including Whitmer, ahead of the protest. 

One man reportedly wrote “we haven’t had any bloodshed yet, but the populace is counting to three, and the other day was two,” while another said he hopes protesters attend the rally “armed to the teeth.”

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