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Whitmer 'very disappointed' after Michigan panel delays move to ban guns from Capitol

The state is looking at the issue after armed protesters against the governor's stay-home order entered the building.
Image: Lansing Michigan protest
Armed protesters provide security as demonstrators demand the reopening of businesses in an "American Patriot Rally" organized by Michigan United for Liberty at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on April 30, 2020.Jeff Kowalsky / AFP - Getty Images

The Michigan Capitol Commission voted Monday to create a special panel to study whether it has the power to ban firearms in the state Capitol, postponing a decision and leading Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to say she was "very disappointed."

The commission assigned a group, made up of some of the commission's six members, to obtain independent legal analysis and get input from legislators and the governor. Michigan House Clerk Gary Randall, the commission's chairman, pledged that the committee would move expeditiously.

At her Monday news conference, Whitmer said she was "very disappointed that the Capitol commission did not take action today to keep legislators safe."

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Last month, gun-toting militia protesters spilled inside the Capitol, where armed anti-lockdown demonstrators confronted police and insisted on being allowed onto the House floor as lawmakers debated whether to extend Whitmer's emergency powers.

Under current state law, people are allowed to take firearms inside the Capitol building.

Randall said at the outset that he never expected the commission to be in a situation "where we're being asked to interpret law to try and take some responsibility that has historically been the responsibility of the Legislature and develop a plan to control firearms."

John Truscott, vice chairman of the commission, said that he doesn't like seeing weapons in the Capitol but that the commission has to be very careful to ensure "we're not overstepping our bounds."

"As unelectable, unaccountable individuals," Truscott said, the six members are "here basically as museum caretakers and gardeners." Should they bar guns from the premises, "we would have an injunction filed almost immediately."

But Kerry Chartkoff, a member of the commission who is the Capitol's historian emeritus, said the group has previously passed rules involving what can and can't be taken inside the Capitol.

"We're not just gardeners. We're not just antique curators," she said, adding that the panel is responsible for the well-being of those who visit the Capitol. However, she said, the commission shouldn't move in haste.

The commission oversees the caretaking of the building, its artifacts and its grounds. Its six members are the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House, two people appointed by the governor and two people jointly appointed by the clerk and the secretary. Both chambers of the Legislature are under Republican control.

Ahead of the hearing, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, asked the commission to wait on making a formal decision until members could meet with legislators and state police, while state Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, issued a formal opinion stating that the commission has the legal authority to regulate whether firearms can be taken inside the building.

However, some on the commission didn't seem moved by her ruling. Truscott said the commission needs to have an independent legal analysis "rather than relying on people with political motivations."

Nessel had pushed back earlier and was critical of how the process has been handled.

"I hope the Michigan State Capitol Commission chooses to act with the public's safety in mind and recognizes the grave consequences that could weigh on their consciences if they choose instead to do nothing," Nessel said Monday afternoon in a statement to NBC News. "The time for action is now and commissioners must take the steps necessary to safeguard our Capitol from violence and preventable loss of life."

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In an interview last week, Whitmer said she wants weapons barred from the Capitol.

"There are legislators who are wearing bulletproof vests to go to work," Whitmer said. "No one should be intimidated by someone who's bringing in an assault rifle into their workplace. And so there is conversation about changing that law. I think it's long overdue, and I absolutely support that change. You shouldn't be intimidated going to be the voice of the people who elected you."