Michigan attorney general asserts authority to ban guns in state Capitol

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Hundreds of protesters angry about stay-at-home orders marched into the Michigan capitol April 30. Some of the protesters were armed with rifles.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a letter to the governing body of the GOP-led state Legislature on Friday declaring that her office holds the legal authority to ban firearms inside the state Capitol after armed protesters barged into the chamber a week ago to oppose Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictions to curb the coronavirus.

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The three-page letter from Nessel to the state's Capitol Commission on Friday came as the panel began discussing a possible ban on guns earlier this week. The panel will reconvene Monday to discuss the issue, giving it time to consider questions from the public.

“Unscreened persons are currently allowed to enter the elevated public gallery position in the Capitol while armed with high-capacity loaded semi-automatic assault weapons and while clad in body armor,” Nessel wrote to Commission chair Gary Randall. “This is permitted during active legislative sessions and during moments of controversial debate where emotions and passions are known to run hot. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is an absurdly dangerous combination that would cause the heart of any expert to skip a beat.”

Where things stand

The Commission manages the Capitol grounds and building and is made up of the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House of Representatives, two individuals jointly appointed by the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House, and two individuals appointed by the governor, according to FOX 2 News in Detroit.

John Truscott, vice chairman of Commission, said Wednesday the panel does not have jurisdiction to prohibit weapons and suggested that such a ban would be up to the full Legislature, which is unlikely to restrict guns.

Nessel’s letter, however, stated the Commission has the legal authority to ensure the “safety of the visiting public, as well as those who carry out the People’s work by prohibiting firearms within the Capitol building.” She also said that prohibiting guns from public spaces does not need to originate in the Legislature.

“The Capitol is a place for free expression of thought and debate. But the freedom of civil discourse does not imply the right to threaten others with harm or violence,” she wrote. “In our current environment and as the chief law enforcement officer in this state, I am gravely concerned for the safety of both our legislative members and the public at large.”

Previously

Some legislators have been concerned enough about the ongoing armed protests that some have begun wearing bulletproof vests to work.

“Let us in! Let us in!” the jostling crowd shouted inside the Capitol on April 30, along with “Lock her up!”

The protest outside featured flags that read “Tyrants get the rope” and “Stop the tyranny!” Confederate battle flags and Nazi symbols were also observed.

The fiery protest was ignited after Whitmer signed three executive orders that day, renewing a state of emergency that will keep residents under stay-at-home orders through May 28.

Her action came after the state’s Republican-led Legislature refused to extend her original emergency declaration, which expired April 30.

Lawmakers sue governor

The state’s GOP-controlled House and Senate have since filed a lawsuit to strip the governor of her power to declare emergencies.

Lawmakers claim Whitmer, a Democrat, has violated the constitutional separation of powers in government and exceeded her executive authority in taking unilateral steps to combat COVID-19. Whitmer maintains that state law gives her the unilateral power to declare and rescind states of emergency.

Oral arguments have been scheduled for May 15. The hearing will take place through the video-conferencing platform Zoom, according to The Detroit News.

Whitmer’s legal team was expected to respond to the suit on or before Tuesday.

Nessel, meanwhile, pointed out that the authority to prohibit weapons is consistent with state law regarding guns in public buildings.

“The concept of ‘open carry’ in Michigan law does not provide the unfettered right to bring firearms into any public space,” Nessel wrote.

Last week, Whitmer stood her ground despite the raucous crowds and swirling political pressure, even from Washington as President Donald Trump voiced his support for the protesters.

“While some members of the Legislature might believe this crisis is over, common sense and all of the scientific data tells us we’re not out of the woods yet,” she said. “By refusing to extend the emergency and disaster declaration, Republican lawmakers are putting their heads in the sand and putting more lives and livelihoods at risk. I’m not going to let that happen.”

Anticipating immediate legal challenges to a gun ban, Nessel promised to defend the Commission in court if necessary.

“I understand that if the Commission votes to prohibit firearms within the Capitol building, it may face a legal challenge over this action. Consistent with my duties as Attorney General, you may rely on my pledge to defend the Commission from suit challenging a prohibition on firearms in the Capitol.”