Michigan is passing gun safety laws. Most counties may not enforce them
- Michigan is passing gun safety bills, including red flag laws that allow police to remove firearms from those deemed a danger
- But most Michigan counties have signed ‘sanctuary’ measures indicating they may not enforce stricter gun regulation
- Research shows red flag laws are acted on less in sanctuary counties than non-sanctuary ones
LANSING — Michigan Democrats cheered the state Legislature’s adoption of gun safety laws last week. But enforcement questions are looming, as more than half of the state’s 83 counties have passed resolutions signaling at least some resistance to the new laws.
At least 53 mostly rural counties adopted resolutions to declare themselves a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” or to explicitly support constitutional rights including the right to bear arms, according to a Bridge Michigan review of news reports, county resolutions, meeting minutes and interviews with local officials.
The resolutions are not legally binding since county commissioners can’t direct sheriffs or judges on what laws to enforce. But they signal a reluctance, if not refusal, to enforce state or federal gun regulations that local authorities consider a violation of the Second Amendment. Such notions are similar to the constitutional sheriff movement, which holds that local authorities, not the state, are the primary arbiters of most law enforcement decisions.
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“We are big (on) guns up here,” Howard Lodholtz, chair of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday.
The Lower Peninsula county’s resolution leaves it to the discretion of sheriffs and prosecutors to decide if new gun laws are unenforceable. Lodholtz told Bridge he knows the resolution is mostly symbolic but “it makes people feel good.”
Like most of the sanctuary counties, Lake County passed its resolution in 2020 as a reaction to a nationwide push for gun safety measures — including red flag laws — that state lawmakers are considering now.
Commissioners in four counties this year have adopted or are considering similar resolutions. The Roscommon County Board of Commissioners, all Republican, voted 3-2 last week to adopt a resolution that rejects laws “ruled unconstitutional” by the U.S. Supreme Court.
One commissioner, Eric Ostergren, said the resolutions are necessary because a “bunch of stupid Democrats” in Lansing are proposing gun restrictions, according to the Houghton Lake Resorter newspaper.
“Resist, resist, resist,” Ostergren said at a March 8 board meeting.
Led by Democrats, state legislators last week passed measures that would require background checks on all firearm sales and mandate secure storage of firearms for gun owners with minor children at home. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign the gun safety measures into law.
Lawmakers have yet to pass the “red flag” bill, a measure that would allow police, relatives and mental health professionals to petition judges for extreme risk protection orders to remove guns from those who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.
The red flag law, which was backed by former President Donald Trump in 2019, is often controversial. Opponents, mostly Republicans, argue the law violates due process, since guns can be taken away from people identified as a danger as their case is being heard in court. Supporters, often Democrats, say it allows law enforcement to act upon warning signs and prevent tragedies ranging from suicides to mass shootings.
The state Legislature is in recess until Apr. 11 and will likely adopt the measure and send it to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for signature.
Preliminary research indicates red flag laws can reduce gun-related injuries or deaths, but enforcement is uneven in the 19 states that have adopted them. The laws are enforced even less frequently in counties with Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions, according to research and news reports. In Colorado, 48 percent of non-Second Amendment sanctuary counties had at least one extreme risk protection order petition filed in 2020, research shows. But only 24 percent of all 37 sanctuary counties had at least one petition filed during the same period.
Some Democratic lawmakers acknowledge the effectiveness of the law hinges on how often it is enforced.
“We have been saying these laws will only be as effective as they are known about, as they are exercised and as they are enforced,” Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Royal Oak Democrat and primary sponsor of one of the Michigan red flag bills, told Bridge.
Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor, told Bridge she hopes local officials realize the effectiveness of laws. She said if local law enforcement refuses to petition for extreme risk protection orders, Michigan State Police can do so instead.
“They will eventually see how these things actually work,” Bayer said of local authorities skeptical of the law. “I don’t know what they are so afraid of. This is not an offense on anybody’s rights in any way. You are basically saving people’s lives by doing this.”
County response nuanced
Of the 53 counties with Second Amendment resolutions, 31 are Second Amendment “sanctuaries” and the other 22 declared support for Second Amendment rights. Language in 26 of those counties allows local sheriffs or prosecutors to refuse enforcement of laws they believe violate the Constitution.
In eight counties, the resolutions specifically oppose the Democratic gun bills or would restrict government funds or resources used to enforce such laws. They are Alcona, Grand Traverse, Hillsdale, Iron, Macomb, Monroe, Osceola and Tuscola counties.
The 53 counties have a combined population of 3.5 million people, about 30 percent of Michigan’s residents, according to a Bridge analysis of U.S. Census data.
The resolutions are “not pronouncements that carry any legal weight,” said Sam Levy, regional legal director for the national anti-gun violence group Everytown Research and Policy.
“If there’s a question about the constitutionality or enforceability of a law, those matters get resolved in courts,” Levy said.
In Lake County, commissioners say lawmakers and policymakers should focus on enforcing current laws on the books, Lodholtz said.
“They can pass all the laws but if they don’t enforce them, what good are they?” he said.
Lodholtz said he supports the concept of universal background checks, which expand background check requirements for pistols in Michigan to all firearms, including long guns.
But Lodholtz called the proposed red flag law “a non-starter” that shouldn’t be enforced. The Michigan bill would allow a judge to issue a temporary order first to confiscate someone’s gun and grant a full hearing within 14 days, which Lodholtz deems unconstitutional.
Additionally, Lodholtz said he fears the law could be used for retaliation by someone making false accusations, even though people who knowingly make false accusations are subject to up to five years in jail and/or a fine up to $20,000 under the proposed bill.
Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin told Bridge he supports the universal background check law and safe storage requirements. He said he is not opposed to the concept of red flag laws, but shared concerns about the 14-day period and the potential of fabricated accusations.
Martin said he does not want to determine what laws are constitutional or not, noting he will assess future enforcement on a “case-by-case basis.” But he added he would resist enforcing the red flag law if that meant putting his officers “in jeopardy.”
“The whole point of red flag laws is (to) prevent injuries to individuals, right? How does it prevent injuries to individuals if I’m putting my officers in an unnecessary environment (where) we know there are firearms (and) the potential for them to get injured?” he said.
Republicans and gun rights advocates are pushing for similar resolutions in a handful of counties, such as Kent and Ottawa.
That’s unlikely in Kent County, Board of Commissioners Chair Stan Stek, a Republican, told Bridge. He noted the county has a rule barring commissioners from adopting resolutions “such as declaring the county to be a sanctuary county.” The rule says the board cannot pass resolutions “not directly within the authority and jurisdiction of the County and the Board of Commissioners” or “for any non-binding statements on policy matters.”
Some are also raising questions in Roscommon County, which is among the most conservative in Michigan. Rex Wolfsen, a Roscommon County commissioner who says he is a life member of the National Rifle Association, said Wednesday he supports the Second Amendment but said the county must “preserve and protect our entire Constitution,” and enforce state gun laws that local authorities might not agree with.
“To simply state that you will not enforce a law that has been passed by Legislature of the State of Michigan smacks of basically rebellion to me,” added resident Leroy Johnston during the meeting last week.
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