We enter a new month greeted with the tragic news of fatal shootings at a college in Virginia and a high school in Minnesota (Lukpat and Jimenez, 2022; Vigdor and Paz, 2022). Sadly, such events have become nearly routine due to the frequency of such reports in the news. Obviously, we cannot become numb to news about terrible events merely because we have heard similar reports regularly in the past. Thus, we must remain motivated to convince policy makers that we need sensible laws to reduce the risks and harms all around us from too-easy access to firearms.
There was another recent news report, however, that was strikingly unique and warns us about a threat that easy access to firearms poses to our entire country. A federal judge denied bail to an Oath Keeper militia leader charged with seditious conspiracy for actions contributing to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The judge wrote (as reported in the press) that the defendant “bought nearly $40,000 of firearms, ammunition, and related accessories in the days leading up to the attack” (Feuer, 2022). Have we made the acquisition of firearms so easy that those who would use gun violence to subvert our elections and governing system can acquire an entire society-threatening arsenal of weapons quickly and easily? Apparently so.
Firearms also put Michigan in the national news again. A Republican candidate for governor and a Republican candidate for state senate spoke to a group of potential poll workers and their words were recorded on video. The candidate for governor attracted national attention for telling the audience to take it upon themselves to stop the casting of votes in polling places on election day: “If you see something you don’t like happening with the machines, and you see something going on, unplug it from the wall.” (Wagner, 2022).
Clearly, such actions could cause horrific disruptions to elections if people believe that they are empowered to interfere with voting in this way.
The state senate candidate’s comments were even worse:
“The ideal thing is to do this peacefully,” Detmer said. “That’s ideal. But the American people, at some point in time, if we can’t change the tide, which I believe we can, we need to be prepared to lock and load.”
“You asked what can we do. Show up armed,” he added. (Wagner, 2022).
Encouraging people to arrive at polling places prepared to threaten or inflict lethal gun violence on voters and poll workers is one of the worst-case scenarios for any democracy.
In October 2020, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a directive banning the open carry of firearms at polling places, municipal clerks’ offices, and locations where ballots are counted. The Michigan Court of Appeals quickly supported a Court of Claims decision that struck down Secretary Benson’s directive, not because it violated any constitutional right to carry firearms, but because she had exceeded her authority by quickly issuing the emergency order rather than following the drawn out process of the state’s Administrative Procedure Act (Eagan, 2020). Secretary Benson issued her directive one week after the FBI announced it had arrested a dozen men for plotting to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Eggert and White, 2020). These defendants included men who gained national attention earlier in 2020 by bringing military-style rifles and other firearms into the state capitol building as part of protests against Gov. Whitmer’s pandemic-driven lockdown orders (Davis, et. al, 2020).
In the atmosphere of the 2020 election that included these explicit (Whitmer plot) and implied (capitol protests) threats of gun violence affecting politics and government, one can understand why Secretary Benson felt that she needed to take emergency action to try to reduce the threat of firearms intimidation and violence on election day. An appellate court ruled that Secretary Benson lacked the authority to take the action that she did. Yet, the authority to take this action exists—in the hands of the state legislature. The armed protests at the state capitol and the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol combined to spur the Michigan State Capitol Commission to act by banning open carry of firearms within the capitol building. Now we need this highly publicized encouragement of carrying guns in polling places to lead the state legislature to act. We need to prevent the risks of intimidation and violence directed at voters and poll workers by people intent on influencing elections through means other than merely casting ballots.
Has any other state acted to address the foregoing issues? Just look to Virginia.
When the legislature became aligned with the governor after the 2019 election, they acted together in 2020 to address precisely these issues. Virginia enacted a law to limit handgun purchases to one per month. If one thinks of this approach more broadly, it could be designed to apply to all firearms and make it more difficult for those intent on causing harm from quickly acquiring an arsenal as the Oath Keeper leader reportedly did in preparation for the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Virginia also enacted a law to ban firearms within 40 feet of polling places. In addition, Virginia banned citizen-carried firearms for their entire Capitol Square, which is the equivalent of Michigan’s capitol grounds and capitol building (DeFusco, 2021). By contrast, Michigan’s State Capitol Commission only banned open carry firearms—but not licensed concealed weapons—in the capitol building itself and not on capitol grounds.
In Michigan, both the State Capitol Commission and the legislature have failed to address the risk that a large gathering of armed protestors just outside the capitol’s doors could enable angry people with firearms to push their way into the building (See, e.g., again, the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol). It makes sense to look to Virginia’s example in thinking about what laws are possible that could help reduce the evident risks to our governing system—and to human lives.
Any suggestion that firearms have a role in voting and the processes of democracy deserves strong condemnation. These recent examples serve as a reminder that we must use our voices and our votes to reject intimidation and violence. We must ensure that we have public officials who will protect our democracy against these evident threats from firearms, as well as work to reduce all risks of gun violence in our nation, state, and local communities.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Aaron Davis, Dalton Bennett, Sarah Cahlan, and Meg Kelly, “Alleged Michigan Plotters Attended Multiple Anti-Lockdown Protests, Photos and Videos Show,” Washington Post, November 1, 2020 (washingtonpost.com).
Jackie DeFusco, “Five New Gun Laws Take Effect July 1 in Virginia,” ABC8 News, June 28, 2021 (wric.com).
Paul Eagan, “Michigan Court of Appeals Denies Benson Appeal, Says Open Carry at Polls Is Legal,” October 29, 2020 (freep.com).
David Eggert and Ed White, “13 Charged in Plots Against Michigan Governor,” AP News, October 8, 2020 (apnews.com).
Alan Feuer, “Stewart Rhodes, Oath Keepers Leader, Is Denied Bail on Sedition Charge,” New York Times, January 26, 2022 (nytimes.com).
Alyssa Lukpat and Jesus Jimenez, “Two Officers Killed at Bridgewater College in Virginia,” New York Times, February 1, 2022 (nytimes.com).
Neil Vigdor and Isabella Grullon Paz, “Shooting Outside Minnesota School Leaves One Student Dead and Another Injured,” New York Times, February 1, 2022 (nytimes.com).
John Wagner, “Michigan GOP Candidates Draw Scrutiny for Suggestions to Unplug Election Machines, Use Firearms to Protect Observers,” Washington Post, February 1, 2022 (washingtonpost.com).