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When The Pro-Gun Movement Won Michigan

By Zachary Gorchow
Editor
Posted: October, 3 2017 10:12 PM

It was the year 2000, and a nascent push for gun control in Michigan had some momentum with the public.

Pro-gun activists and lawmakers had nearly achieved a long-sought goal – to change Michigan’s concealed weapon law so that any Michigander, provided they had no convictions of serious crimes or mental illness, would have an automatic right to a permit allowing them to carry a concealed pistol. In the past, it was up to county gun boards to decide whether someone could get a CPL, or as it was known then, a CCW (for carrying a concealed weapon).

Bills had passed the House and the Senate in 1999, though only after a searing debate because the action occurred almost immediately in the wake of the shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That massacre had nothing to do with carrying a concealed pistol, but it ignited a major debate about gun laws and with the Michigan Legislature pressing ahead with a loosening of gun laws, it was gasoline on the fire.

What the bills did do was allow persons with CPLs to carry in schools, houses of religious worship, day care centers and other sensitive locations. That was already allowed under the law at the time, but there were far fewer CPL-holders than what would occur if Michigan became a “shall issue” state. More gasoline on the fire.

Then, the bills stalled, virtually unheard of for legislation that passed both the House and Senate. It had become too politically toxic and some key players were talking about putting the bill up for a referendum if the Legislature passed it and then-Governor John Engler signed it.

The November 2000 election came and went, and then pro-gun supporters pounced in the lame-duck session. The bill was substantially rewritten, but the core of it remained, to effectively grant an automatic right to a CPL to those who applied. The big change was the establishment of “gun-free zones” where CPL-holders could not carry their firearms – schools, the houses of religious worship, etc.

And in the first time the Legislature deployed this tactic, funding was added to the bill in a bid to inoculate it from referendum, manipulating using language in the Michigan Constitution that barred any bill making appropriations to state institutions from being subject to voter referendum. The purpose of that language, as the debates during the Constitutional Convention of 1961 and 1962 showed, was to prevent zealots from paralyzing state government by putting the major budget bills up for referendum, but a staffer or attorney saw an opening in the language and it worked.

Nonetheless, activists organized a committee to pursue a referendum. They collected valid signatures from 232,582 registered voters, about 80,000 more than needed to make the ballot. It was a remarkable display of organization essentially from scratch.

But they lost at the Supreme Court, which sided with Republicans on whether the bill could be eligible for referendum in light of the $1 million appropriation in the bill to the Department of State Police. It wasn’t, a 4-3 majority of the court declared, effectively ending the right to referendum.

Gun control supporters still had an opportunity to go to the ballot. They could have pursued a voter-initiated act, a new law entirely to replace the law Mr. Engler would eventually sign. And they vowed to do so.

The idea bandied about at the time was to return the state to a “may issue” state, restoring discretion to gun boards on who would get permits, and leave in place the provisions of the new law creating the gun-free zones and training requirements to get a permit. One flaw, gun control supporters noted at the time, with a referendum is that had one been possible and voters repealed the law, it would have meant repealing the gun-free zones too.

But it never happened. At that point in time, the gun control groups had some key players on their side against the new CPL law – law enforcement, educators and the owners of major entertainment venues. They had an organization that showed it could collect signatures.

Why they never decided to go for it, there could have been many reasons. Perhaps they polled the idea and it was tenuous. Getting yes votes to pass a proposal is much harder than no votes to defeat the law the Legislature passed. Perhaps they knew going up against the National Rifle Association and other gun groups was going to be difficult (in the fall of 2000, I followed a Democratic candidate for the state House as he walked door-to-door in his Downriver district, and I swear every house had an NRA sticker in the front window).

Whatever the case, the momentum they built quickly evaporated. There are still gun control advocates in the Legislature and activists who call for gun control legislation following the appallingly regular shooting massacres in this country, yet they have been totally outflanked politically in Michigan.

The NRA endorsement remains coveted among Republicans. There is no comparable endorsement for the other side. When some House Democrats introduced some pro-gun control legislation late in 2016, it quickly became the subject of internal caucus angst because Republicans started tying it to House Democratic candidates in northern Michigan, where a candidate has to be pro-gun to win.

In the wake of the Columbine massacre in 1999, there were Capitol news conferences with Democratic lawmakers demanding a halt to the CPL legislation. A variety of groups spoke out against those bills. The issue virtually dominated state government and politics.

In the wake of Sunday’s slaughter in Las Vegas, there has been no similar organized outcry, save for some tweets and a press release focused on legislation in Congress, not Michigan laws.

That’s basically a continuation of what’s happened on this issue in this state for the last 16 years.

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