UPDATE, January 11: Michigan's Capitol Commission called an emergency meeting and voted unanimously to ban open carry in the capitol.
When hundreds of Trump supporters rioted at the United States Capitol building on January 6, similar groups also gathered at state capitols and governor’s mansions across the country to vent their anger over an election they erroneously believe was stolen. Some of them were armed.
For Michigan State Senator Dayna Polehanki, the scenes in Washington and around the country felt hauntingly familiar. Last April, anti-quarantine demonstrators wielding rifles entered the state Senate gallery in Lansing and yelled at lawmakers while they were in session.
The protesters in Lansing weren’t doing anything illegal. According to an analysis by Michigan Advance, 18 states allow members of the public to carry guns in some form — openly or concealed, or both — into statehouses. Michigan is one of nine states that puts no restrictions on how guns may be carried. The events at the U.S. Capitol had the “same energy, same paraphernalia as the April 30 storming of the Michigan capitol: Confederate flags, nooses, Trump flags,” Polehanki tweeted during the siege. “And it was mostly white men.”
But there was a crucial difference: Guns are banned in the U.S. Capitol, which is located in a city with unusually tight firearm restrictions. In Michigan, there would be nothing preventing rioters from bringing guns.
As we reported last October, Polehanki has been spearheading an effort to ban guns and install metal detectors in the Michigan Capitol, but her efforts have met with resistance from Republican lawmakers. She told me that the insurrection in D.C. probably won’t change that. State Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, have said they will entertain a ban on openly carried guns only. Polehanki says that half-measure doesn’t go far enough, since members of the public would still be allowed to bring in concealed weapons.
“It would do nothing to keep legislators, staff, journalists and visitors — most of whom are children — safe,” she said.
Last spring, Polehanki and her colleagues called on the Michigan State Capitol Commission — a six-member panel of political appointees that serves as a caretaker for the Capitol and its grounds — to ban all guns, both openly carried and concealed. The proposal was rejected in September. The next month, 14 men were arrested for allegedly planning to overtake the Legislature, take lawmakers hostage, kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and execute elected officials on TV. Two of the suspects had been part of the April demonstration.
“I think some of the people who probably went to the United States Capitol saw what happened with relative impunity at the Michigan Capitol,” Polehanki said. Images from the January 6 insurrection show rioters inside the U.S. Capitol clutching zip-tie handcuffs, suggesting a plan to take elected officials hostage.
Polehanki now keeps a bulletproof vest under her desk at the Capitol, and has mapped out escape routes from the building. Earlier this week, she went to a military surplus store to purchase more supplies. “I now have a police helmet, a gas mask, and some pepper spray,” she said.
One of the members of the Michigan State Capitol Commission, Bill Kandler, told a local news outlet after the siege in Washington that an open carry ban could be done “probably overnight,” but not until the commission meets again at the end of January. A few days later the commission called an emergency meeting for January 11 to discuss a ban on openly carried guns. A ban on concealed guns, Kandler said, isn’t as feasible, as it would entail erecting metal detectors and staffing security checkpoints, which could cost as much as $1 million annually. And it’s not likely to be supported by the pro-gun Republicans who control the Legislature.
Lawmakers in at least two other states are attempting to restrict guns in capitols. Nebraska state Senator Machaela Cavanaugh called for a gun ban after men wielding rifles sat directly behind lawmakers as they heard testimony on a proposed gun prohibition for domestic violence offenders last February. That same month, Washington state Representative Tana Senn introduced a gun ban after armed protesters entered the building and staged a demonstration. Both lawmakers say the presence of firearms, particularly during a debate about gun laws, feels intimidating and constrains them from doing their jobs.
Senn told me this week she’s confident the Democrat-controlled legislature in Washington will pass a Capitol gun ban before the end of the session in April. But right now civilians can roam the halls with openly carried guns. On the day of the siege, armed protesters gathered at the capitol in Olympia and broke through the gates at the governor’s residence before being held off by police. Senn is preparing for the prospect that they will return when the legislature reconvenes this month, and she intends to stay vigilant: “Eyes open, be aware.”
But there’s a greater sense of urgency in Michigan, a battleground state that went for Joe Biden in November, and has been thrust into the spotlight over unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. In December, armed protesters converged on the home of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the state’s chief election official.
“Trump won’t ever say the election was fair,” Polehanki said. “Until Republican politicians tell their followers, ‘Hey, the election was not stolen; we lost,’ until they say those words repeatedly and publicly, this violence will continue.”
The Michigan Legislature is set to reconvene on January 13. With no guarantee of a gun ban on the horizon, one state senator has demanded that the National Guard be present. Polehanki fears that the insurrection in the nation’s Capitol will embolden gun-toting protesters, which could result in violence.
The day after the D.C. insurrection, the Michigan Capitol was briefly evacuated because of a bomb threat. “Our state Capitol is not safe,” state attorney general Dana Nessel said at the time. “I would advise people not to go [there] if they can avoid it.”