Gun Violence Advocates: Michigan Secretary of State Protects Fundamental Right to Vote By Banning Open Carrying Weapons at the Polls
October 16, 2020
Election season follows months of record gun sales driven by racial animus
WASHINGTON -- Today, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a directive to local election officials that clarifies open carry of firearms at polling places on Election Day is prohibited in the state. The announcement reports that Attorney General Dana Nessel and Michigan State Police Director Col. Joe Gasper have joined Benson in preparations to ensure voters are safe at the polls, including plans to issue additional guidance to law enforcement in the event that policy is violated.
The guidance tracks with recommendations in a recently released report by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) and Guns Down America – “Guns Down At The Polls: How States Can and Should Limit Firearms at Polling Places” – which explores numerous examples of gun-based intimidation occurring at polling places in swing states including Michigan in 2016 and 2018, and identifies tools available to help state and local officials keep voters safe and prevent armed intimidation at the polls.
Guns Down America Executive Director Igor Volsky said, “Today’s announcement from Secretary Benson is a recognition that voting is a fundamental right, and all American citizens should be able to exercise the franchise safely. Secretary Benson has shown important leadership today, and I hope that election officials across the country follow in her footsteps.”
Added Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Joshua Horwitz, “Secretary Benson’s clear guidance will help ensure Michigan residents have safe access to the polls and that all voters will be respected. The threat of armed intimidation at the polls is not something state officials can ignore. The Trump campaign is amassing what they describe as an ‘army’ of poll watchers. The president himself has told the “Proud Boys” and other extremist groups to ‘stand by’ in preparation. We’ve already seen intimidation by Trump supporters at early voting locations in areas of Virginia and a troubling militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitmer and Virginia Governor Northam.”
The organizations’ joint report, “Guns Down At The Polls: How States Can and Should Limit Firearms at Polling Places,” found that Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin all lack laws that expressly prevent the possession of firearms at polling places, but do have tools that can help prevent intimidation if state and local officials take coordinated action. In fact, only six states -- Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas -- have clear laws that generally prohibit guns in polling places.
The report found numerous examples of gun-based intimidation in polling places in swing states. Armed right wing supporters questioned voters at polling places and protested outside of a Democratic campaign office with firearms in Virginia during the 2016 election. In 2018, a Pennsylvania man was arrested for threatening to “shoot up” a polling place. In North Carolina, a Black campaign volunteer was accosted by an armed man at an early voting location for the 2018 election.
Michigan has no state laws that specifically limit the places that firearms can be brought to, but Michigan law states that it is illegal for most people to possess firearms at premises such as banks, houses of worship, courts, theatres, sports arenas, day care centers, and hospitals. Michigan state law gives local governments permission to impose additional regulations on the use of firearms and pneumatic guns to commit criminal activities, which includes voter intimidation and coercion, and using pneumatic guns to threaten others.
Driven in part by racial animus, gun sales have surged in 2020, intensifying the risk of election-related gun violence. In August 2020, the FBI conducted more than 3.1 million firearm background checks, an increase of 35 percent over the same month in 2019. In July 2020, the FBI conducted more than 3.6 million firearm background checks, making it the third highest month on record for checks since the bureau began keeping statistics in 1998.
Horwitz is a national expert on insurrectionism and the author of Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, which explores how extremist insurrectionist ideology has been promoted and mainstreamed by the National Rifle Association and its allies in the far-right movement and the consequences for U.S. democracy.
CSGV has a new report, “Guns in Public: A Threat to Safety and Democracy,” which outlines the scope of public carry laws in America and demonstrates how weak open and concealed carry laws increase gun violence. The report provides guidance to policymakers to protect our country from violence and armed intimidation and emphasizes the importance of passing laws that disarm extremism by banning public carry and strengthening concealed carry laws. CSGV released a video in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, with the message that we’re not safe in Donald Trump’s America.
The possibility of armed intimidation is not new. In the week before the 2016 election, Guns Down America launched a campaign to give voters a way to report instances of armed intimidation at polling places. In less than 12 hours, 85 voters in 28 states reported seeing firearms at the polls. These incidents were reported by Voter Protection Hotline personnel to local law enforcement and election authorities.