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Judge nixes polling place gun ban, Alpena-area police on alert

News Photo by Julie Riddle Carrie Mullins, a gun rights activist in Alcona County, displays her homemade gun holster, imprinted with the Second Amendment.

ALPENA — Guns are not illegal at polling places, police leaders in Northeast Michigan said.

On Tuesday, that sentiment was bolstered by a Michigan judge who ruled that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson failed to follow state law with her sudden order banning guns at polling places. Attorney General Dana Nessel vowed to appeal the ruling handed down one week before Election Day.

Still, on Election Day in Northeast Michigan, an increased police presence will be noticeable around many local polling places, but police said they won’t interfere with people carrying weapons, as long as those carrying them don’t act inappropriately.

Uniformed officers will be stationed in Alpena polling places on Tuesday, said Lt. Eric Hamp of the Alpena Police Department.

The officers will be there to make sure voters have the freedom to vote without feeling harassed or threatened, he said.

“We won’t stand for that,” Hamp said. “We’re going to do our part to make sure that people can go in and make their vote without having concerns for their safety.”

Police would prefer guns not be carried openly on Election Day, for the sake of voters who may not be comfortable around weapons, Hamp said.

“I’m not sure that’s going to give a really warm and fuzzy feeling to residents who are choosing to show up and place their vote,” he said.

But, he added, the open carrying of guns is legal, and — as long as a gun carrier isn’t causing a disturbance or creating a threat — they will be allowed to go about their business.

In Alpena County, extra deputies will be on patrol on Tuesday, with orders to keep a close eye on polling places, according to Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski.

In the past, voter intimidation has not been a problem at local polls, the sheriff said, and his office has received no intelligence that suggests problems are expected this year.

If deputies are alerted to people with guns acting in a manner that frightens or intimidates other voters, they will step in to have a conversion with the gun owner — and, hopefully, that will be enough to resolve the situation, the sheriff said.

Troopers from the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post will conduct business as usual on Tuesday, according to Lt. John Grimshaw, post commander.

No extra patrol cars will be on the road, although troopers will be available to respond if they are needed at a polling place, Grimshaw said.

Michigan State Police officials in Lansing are withholding comment about whether they would take action against someone openly carrying at a polling place, according to MSP spokeswoman Shanon Banner.

Presque Isle County Sheriff Joe Brewbaker said his deputies, too, will make no changes to their usual activity on Election Day. As at any election, he said, election workers can call police if any concerns arise.

Open carry is already prohibited at Rogers City High School, the polling place for Rogers City voters, Rogers City Police Chief Jamie Meyer said.

The school, which is a weapon-free zone, will be closed to students on Election Day, but the school resource officer will be stationed at the polling place and will remove anyone who openly carries a gun, Meyer said.

Montmorency County Sheriff Chad Brown was not available for comment on this story.

Last week, Alcona County commissioners approved language designating the county as a Second Amendment sanctuary, eight months after the suggestion was nixed by commissioners concerned about the language in the resolution supporting gun rights.

The recent resurrection and adoption of the resolution was prompted by Benson’s decree, Alcona County Sheriff Scott Stephenson said.

Like other local law enforcement heads, Stephenson doesn’t think he has a legal basis for removing or arresting people who choose to peaceably bring weapons to voting places.

Northeast Michiganders have always carried guns to polling places, he said. While his deputies will be on increased patrol on Election Day, he doesn’t expect gun owners to behave badly at the polls.

Carrie Mullins, chairwoman for the Alcona County Republicans who has been a proponent of gun rights in the county, said Benson’s edict endangers a fair vote, because it makes people decide between their right to carry a gun and their right to vote.

Gun owners carry because they feel safer doing so — for their own sake and that of others, said Mullins, who said she is licensed for concealed carry and plans to have a pistol with her at the polling place.

“Especially up here, where we take gun ownership very seriously, we have a ton of responsible gun owners who would be willing to risk their lives for a complete stranger,” Mullins said. “At least I know I would.”

Concealed carry — legal at Michigan polling places except in buildings that already ban concealed carry, such as churches and schools — was not challenged by Benson’s directive.

Gun-rights groups accused Benson of exceeding her authority in banning people from openly carrying guns within 100 feet of voting sites. She acted after authorities recently busted up an alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

But Benson failed to go through a formal rule-making process required under state law, Judge Christopher Murray said.

Compliance “is no mere procedural nicety,” Murray said. “Instead, our appellate courts have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the democratic principles embodied in the (law), which requires notice and an opportunity to be heard on the subject under consideration.”

Earlier in the day, Assistant Attorney General Heather Meingast said lawmakers have given secretaries of state discretion to set certain election rules, including safety. Separately, armed critics upset with the governor’s orders about controlling the coronavirus have rallied at the Capitol.

“There are dozens — we’ve had numerous complaints,” Meingast told the judge. “There are voters who are afraid. There are election workers who are afraid to go to work on Election Day.”

Murray said voter intimidation already is illegal.

While guns are legal at voting places in Michigan, the state for many years had prohibited political endorsements on items such as buttons, clothing, face masks, or hats within 100 feet of a polling place. Voters arriving with such election-related materials may be asked to cover or remove them.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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