When Michigan State Senator Dayna Polehanki heads into work at the Capitol in Lansing, the first thing she does is scan the Senate gallery for men with guns. The fear of a mass shooting is never far from her mind, and she’ll glance up every now and then to see if someone with an AR-15 has slipped in. She makes a mental note of the bulletproof vest she keeps under her desk, and runs through the escape routes she plotted with her father in case she ever needs to flee the building.
“This isn’t normal,” she told The Trace. “This is crazy.”
Polehanki’s vigilance is understandable: On October 8, the FBI announced the arrest of 14 men allegedly behind a plot to storm the Capitol, take lawmakers hostage, and kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The men, members of a militia called the Wolverine Watchmen, were angry about the pandemic-related restrictions that Whitmer had implemented this past spring.
But there is no law stopping armed protesters from entering the Capitol — because members of the public can still openly carry firearms there. The GOP majority, which espouses gun rights and personal freedom, has little interest in changing that. On the same day the Whitmer plot was announced, open carriers demonstrated at the Capitol, alongside some Republican lawmakers.
“A Republican state rep said the other day how it would break his heart if the Michigan Capitol, ‘this beautiful historic building, was filled with metal detectors and became, like, a fortress,’” Polehanki told us in late October. “My heart would be broken if a bloodbath occurred.”
Michigan is one of at least eight states that allow members of the public to openly carry guns in capitol buildings, whether in house or senate galleries, legislative meetings, or lawmakers’ offices, according to Giffords Law Center. Lawmakers leading efforts to ban guns in legislatures in three of those states — Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington — told The Trace that the sight of armed civilians in public hearings or in chambers is intimidating, and constrains their ability to do their jobs. Polehanki said that, on at least two occasions this year, GOP leaders in the Michigan Legislature have cancelled sessions on days when open carriers were set to demonstrate.
Washington State Representative Tana Senn, who also introduced a gun ban in her Capitol after armed protesters entered the building and staged a demonstration in February, said she’s relieved that when the measure comes up for debate next session, she and her colleagues will be working from home. “Whenever we have a gun bill, thousands of people show up with their guns on the Capitol grounds,” she told The Trace. “It’s just not the way that we should be making public policy.”
It also drives away people with opposing views, she said. Senn watched as demonstrators, dressed in “full military regalia” and carrying assault-style rifles, blocked school groups and people with disabilities as they tried to advocate for issues important to them.
“Folks who come with their guns are preventing other people from feeling comfortable in the people’s house,” she said. “And this is the people’s house. Everybody should feel welcome.”
Some Republicans, however, use the “people’s house” argument to justify why members of the public should be allowed to carry in state capitols. In February, 400 people showed up to the Nebraska Capitol to testify against a proposed domestic offender gun ban, and men wielding assault-style rifles sat directly behind lawmakers as they debated the measure. Legislators on both sides of the aisle were rattled. But GOP Governor Pete Ricketts defended the right of the open carriers to exercise the Second Amendment in the Capitol.
State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh called for a gun ban shortly after the hearing. Now, she’s suspicious of people she doesn’t know when she passes them in the hall; one such encounter triggered a panic attack. “It’s traumatic to have somebody sit behind you with a loaded weapon,” she said. “That’s something that sticks with me.”
Cavanaugh says she believes in the Second Amendment, but that she wants to legislate in a gun-free environment. In the weeks after the hearing, she explored a legislative rule change that would go through the Legislature’s Capitol Commission — a panel of representatives from each branch of state government that serves as a caretaker for the Capitol and its grounds. A bipartisan group of lawmakers began discussions, but Cavanaugh said the suggestions — banning guns in certain areas of the building but not hallways or elevators — were weak. Then the Legislature adjourned on account of the pandemic. She plans to introduce legislation after the election, but with a Republican majority, it faces an uphill battle. Still, she dreads the gun-toting protesters who are likely to show up to the hearing.
It’s not just lawmakers who live in fear. In Missouri, where both concealed and openly carried guns are allowed into the Capitol, legislative aides go on high alert whenever a gun violence prevention bill is up for debate. “Every Democratic staffer that I’m close to has a plan,” said Adam Speak, aide to State Representative Ian Mackey. That includes hiding in ventilation ducts or rushing into lawmakers’ offices. One day, when a drumline came to play at the Capitol unannounced, the first rat-a-tats on the snare drum caused Speak and his fellow aides to panic.
“A bunch of the young staffers were like, ‘Oh God, today’s the day,’” he said.
Polehanki, the state senator from Michigan, was only in office for four months when armed anti-quarantine demonstrators entered the Senate gallery in April. Two of the suspects in Governor Whitmer’s kidnapping plot were part of a group of armed anti-lockdown protesters that entered the gallery and yelled down to lawmakers, a jarring moment Polehanki immortalized in a tweet.
“People were yelling things down at us, and the tension was high,” she said. She refused to accept this as the status quo.
Days later, she introduced a resolution urging the Michigan State Capitol Commission, a six-member panel of political appointees, to ban guns in the building and install security screening checkpoints. But commission members, divided along party lines, delayed a decision six times over the following six months, and then, in September, rejected a Capitol gun ban proposal. Polehanki and her Democratic colleagues introduced a bill that would modify the state penal code to ban guns in the building, but it’s currently stalled in committee.
Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican, says any such ban should go through the full Legislature. “We have to adopt a policy that respects the rights and freedoms of people while, at the same time, ensures that people are kept safe inside our Capitol,” he said. He and his fellow Republicans are now floating a prohibition only on openly carried weapons — something Polehanki said does not go far enough. “I can just as easily be killed by a concealed weapon,” she said.
Some lawmakers say they have noticed that white supremacist groups, whose members often come to capitols armed, are not policed. “It’s very evident to me that it is a racial disparity issue,” Cavanaugh said. “In June, we had Black Lives Matter protests at the Capitol and the police and the troopers were everywhere. Two days later, white nationalists were protesting with guns in front of the Capitol, and there was no security.”
Black lawmakers in particular have been among the most vocal when it comes to banning guns in the Michigan Capitol. Democratic Representative Sarah Anthony, who relied on armed escorts to help her maneuver past gun-toting protesters at the Capitol in the spring, said at a September meeting of the Capitol Commission: “When white supremacists come into this building, they’re targeting people that look like [us]. We are terrified.”
Polehanki’s Capitol gun ban is facing steep odds in Michigan. Her best chance is if Democrats are able to win the four seats they need to flip the House in November, which would change the composition of the Capitol commission (each chamber appoints two members).
“We respect our Second Amendment rights here in Michigan,” Polehanki said. “But I’ve got First Amendment rights too: to vote without a gun at my back.”