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The Michigan State Capitol Commission’s Modest “First Step”

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On Monday, the Michigan State Capitol Commission voted unanimously to support a limited prohibition on citizen-carried firearms inside the state Capitol.  It had appeared that the majority of commissioners wanted to leave any action on this issue to the legislature. However, the legislature never acted in 2020 and the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol last week thrust the issue back on the commissioners’ radar screens—and consciences, we hope.  During the short commission meeting, which lasted less than fifteen minutes, it was explicitly acknowledged that a few commissioners felt that the rule needed to be sufficiently limited to avoid clashing with the views of certain legislative leaders.  Even the Commission’s limited action will undoubtedly be challenged by opponents of regulation who will use litigation or legislative proposals to question the Commission’s authority and the legality of a meeting scheduled on relatively short notice.

It is probably useful for everyone to read for themselves the new regulation.  This is the version, including capitalization, that I received directly from the Commission upon my request shortly after the unanimous vote.  During the Commission meeting, the commissioners described the wording as the result of many hours of negotiation:

No person may carry a firearm in the public areas inside the Michigan State Capitol Building. Exceptions to this include the Michigan State Police, Capitol Security Officers, Sergeants-at-Arms of the Michigan Senate or House of Representatives, law enforcement officers LICENSED BY THE MICHIGAN COMMISSION ON LAW ENFORCEMENT STANDARDS in the performance of their official duties, if the officer is in uniform or otherwise properly identified, and, a person with a valid Concealed Pistol License (CPL), issued by any state, WHO IS CARRYING A WEAPON IN COMPLIANCE WITH MICHIGAN CPL REGULATIONS.

After the vote, one commissioner made a self-congratulatory comment about this rule as being a contribution to “ensure the safety” of everyone at the Capitol.  It does, indeed, reduce certain risks previously posed by permitting civilians to freely carry military-style rifles into the building, including the visitor gallery overlooking the legislative chambers.  However, it does not appear that this rule should be associated with any statement including the words “ensure the safety.”  Two commissioners who wanted a broader prohibition described it as a “first step” and that is a more apt description in light of the risks that remain.

What else could be done to further reduce gun violence risks for visiting school children, tourists, staff, and legislators at the Capitol?

First, the limited prohibition only applies to the interior of the Capitol building itself.  It does not apply to the grounds of the Capitol.  It leaves open the opportunity for terrorists with military-style rifles to gather at the door to the Capitol for a protest and then force their way inside with far more firepower in their hands than that readily available to the law enforcement officers who provide security at the Capitol.  News reports indicate that the FBI’s evidence against those who allegedly plotted to kidnap Governor Whitmer includes the plotters’ discussions of plans to storm the Capitol (R. Snell and M.N. Burke, 2020).  That grave danger is not alleviated by the limited scope of the new rule.  A broader rule is needed so that there is a basis for stopping anyone seen with citizen-carried firearms on Capitol grounds before they can reach the building itself.

Second, the exception that permits concealed weapons in the Capitol when carried by individuals with concealed-carry licenses continues to impose grave risks for everyone in the building.  Again, we should not need a violent event to re-learn the lesson taught by the four individuals who stood in the visitor gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954 and wounded five members of Congress by firing pistols at those working in the legislative chamber.  The requirements for obtaining a concealed-carry license in Michigan are not rigorous and do not require a showing of any compelling need to carry a weapon.  The concealed pistol “loophole” is large and perpetuates the threat of firearms violence inside our seat of government.

Third, why should Michiganders be placed at risk by individuals who obtained concealed-carry licenses in other states?  For example, only on January 1, 2021 did the Commonwealth of Virginia begin to require in-person gun safety courses in order to obtain a concealed-carry license.  People who obtained their licenses in Virginia prior to that date by taking an online course still retain their licenses.  Is that adequate?  It is merely one example of questions that should be asked about whether Michigan should automatically accept licenses from other states where we have no influence over their requirements or the rigor with which they supervise their own processes.

Let us remember—and remind our policymakers—there is no Second Amendment issue involved when we discuss measures to limit the risks of gun violence at our Capitol and on Capitol grounds. The legal definition of the Second Amendment articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) created a limited right to keep a handgun in one’s home for self-protection.  Moreover, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a gunowner and hunter, wrote in the Court’s majority opinion that: 

Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited…. nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. [emphasis supplied]

There is no Second Amendment impediment to making a policy choice that prohibits citizen-carried firearms in our state Capitol and on Capitol grounds.  Indeed, that is precisely why such prohibitions can exist at the U.S. Capitol.  Just imagine if the U.S. Capitol had operated last week under Michigan’s rules for its own Capitol.  What if the terrorists at the protest had been permitted to freely and openly carry military-style rifles on the grounds of the Capitol?  At the moment that they decided to attack, how much worse might the resulting violence, injury, and property damage have been?  We should not need to re-learn the lessons of violent events elsewhere.  Shouldn’t we ask our policymakers to provide as much protection as possible rather than leave our citizens and legislators vulnerable to attacks that we know, with certainty, specific segments of our population would like to launch against our governing institutions?

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Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President

SOURCES:

R. Snell and M.N. Burke. “Plans to Kidnap Whitmer, Overthrow Government Foiled, Officials Say,” Detroit News, October 8, 2020.

 

GUNS DON'T BELONG IN THE CAPITOL.

The Michigan Capitol Commission voted unanimously to support a limited prohibition on citizen-carried firearms inside the state Capitol. However, this ban does not apply to the Capitol grounds or to individuals with conceal carry permits. While an important first step, the Capitol Commission has a long way to go. Show your support and urge your representatives to ban all citizen firearms on the Capitol grounds!

Let’s make our voices heard and put an end to this dangerous practice!

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