Joan Bauer refers to the Michigan state Capitol as the “people’s house.”
But as the vice chair of the Capitol Commission, Bauer sees the need to balance open access with “appropriate security.”
Bauer, a former state legislator from Lansing, and other Commission members have instructed Executive Director Rob Blackshaw to develop a set of policy recommendations that would ban all weapons from being brought into the Capitol. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed FY 2024 budget includes an additional $5 million for Capitol security that would pay for new technology to detect weapons.
The Commission voted in 2021 to ban the open carry of guns in the building, but it did not pursue additional security measures like magnetometers and x-ray machines. Hence visitors can carry concealed weapons without detection.
“The Legislature at the time was not interested in that,” said Bauer of the formerly GOP-controlled chambers. As a result of the 2022 elections, though, Democrat Whitmer has a Democratic majority in both.
The move to ban open carry was the result of consultation with the Michigan State Police, said former Commission Vice Chair John Truscott. Banning guns in the building took on increasing urgency beginning in April 2020 when protesters who were angry about COVID prevention measures flooded the building. Some who were armed with long rifles stood outside the House chambers and inside the Senate visitors gallery.
Then came Jan. 6, 2021, when at least seven people lost their lives in connection with the invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
“Things have changed dramatically in terms of the intensity of the debate and the hostility levels,” said Truscott, a public relations executive who was former Gov. John Engler’s spokesperson as well as a legislative staffer for years.
The Michigan Capitol has been a flash point of protest and threats of violence going back to its 19th-century construction days when many citizens were outraged at the cost. Law enforcement expected disruptions during the cornerstone-laying ceremony in October 1873. However, no mob appeared and the event went off without issues. The building was opened in 1879.
Since then, lawmakers have had fistfights, thrown ashtrays at each other during committee meetings and made sundry sexual allegations. There have also been innumerable protests on the lawn.
Bauer recalled looking into the gallery of the House during her tenure from 2007 until 2013 and realizing lawmakers were an easy target if someone wanted to cause harm from the gallery.
“I don’t remember anybody ever having an open-carry weapon,” she said. “And I don’t remember at that point feeling frightened, but I do remember looking up there thinking, ‘Oh, my God, if anybody was up there with intent to do anything, we’re like sitting ducks down here.’”
In 2021, the Commission considered banning all guns. But the technology available at the time, systems like “what you see at an airport,” Truscott said, were cumbersome and expensive. With no legislative support to appropriate money to increase security, the Commission opted instead to ban only open carry of firearms.
Truscott noted a practical problem, too. The detection systems available two years ago would have required people to wait in line to be screened, causing backups in moving people into the building and making it feel less open. Besides the general public, legislative staffers, lobbyists and lawmakers, the Capitol annually plays host to an estimated 115,000 schoolchildren, Bauer said. “That takes time,” said Truscott of the airport-like screening processes. “It could take 45 minutes to an hour to get in the building, in the middle of winter. That’s not a very attractive option.”
Truscott pointed to new security systems being used by Disney at its theme parks that look no different from the security systems installed at the doors of Target and Meijer, which work on a radio frequency. Such systems scan people for potential weapons. An alert is sent to security officials when the such a system detects what might be a weapon.
State Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said additional Capitol security money is “absolutely” going to be appropriate for the next fiscal year.
“We absolutely need to do something about removing firearms from the building,” she said. “And in this role as the appropriations chair, I’m committed to making sure that there’s the funding necessary to secure this building.”
Truscott said he has significant concerns about the legality of banning all guns from the building. The Commission, he said, is a “ministerial body”: It’s job is to take care of the building, not make policy. It was created in the early 2000s when the full brunt of term limits became apparent and lawmakers, who used to serve the same role on the Capitol Committee, stopped being interested in the body. It was dissolved and replaced by the appointed Commission.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel had issued a legal opinion that the Commission does have the authority to ban guns from the building. Truscott is not so certain. He expressed concern about a legal challenge that could destroy the capacity of an attorney general to issue legal opinions, which carry the force of law unless they are overturned by a court.
“This could be the case that overturns the AG’s authority to issue opinions because it would be a cornerstone of any case that’s brought,” he said. “For those of you who believe those in the Legislature who believe the AG should retain that authority, they either have to pass a law to do it because it’s not currently in statute or the Legislature should pass the policy for the building. And that would avoid a potential lawsuit.”
Steve Dulan, an attorney who teaches gun law at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, said that “no legislation supports this policy change,” which he contended was beyond the Capitol Commission’s power.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out in the courts,” he said.
Dulan is also the spokesperson for the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners, which opposes a ban on weapons at the building, particularly one barring concealed carry. “If you ban concealed carry, you’re not making anyone safe,” he said.
Anthony said she plans to look into the legal concerns.
“At the end of the day, however we approach it, it needs to get done.”
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