Traverse City News and Events

Grand Traverse County Votes To Become Second Amendment Sanctuary

By Beth Milligan | March 5, 2020

Following a contentious four-hour meeting that drew an overflow crowd of nearly 100 to the Governmental Center Wednesday, Grand Traverse County commissioners voted 4-2 to affirm the county’s commitment to the Second Amendment and to oppose any enforcement or funding measures that would infringe on gun owners’ rights. More than 40 people – evenly divided between opposition and support – spoke during public comment about the resolution, which adds Grand Traverse County to a growing list of counties in Michigan and elsewhere fighting potential gun reform laws.

Nearly three dozen Michigan counties have passed pro-Second Amendment resolutions signaling opposition to any legislation that would bring stricter gun rules to the state. The sanctuary movement spread to Michigan from Virginia, which is preparing to pass a package of gun control bills placing limits on handgun purchases, allowing municipalities to restrict firearms in certain public spaces, expanding background checks, and instituting “red flag” procedures that allow law enforcement to seize guns from individuals believed to be a threat to themselves or others. In response, more than 100 Virginian municipalities have passed “sanctuary” resolutions stating they oppose the laws and in some cases will refuse to enforce them, as they deem the legislation unconstitutional. Legal experts have said the resolutions should be considered symbolic, as cities and law enforcement officials can’t refuse to follow state laws.

Randy Bishop, administrator of a 96,000-plus member Facebook group called Michigan for 2A Sanctuary Counties, told county commissioners that the Grand Traverse County resolution should also be considered symbolic. “We’re doing this in every single county across the state of Michigan because of these red flag laws already pending in Lansing, (and) our governor’s position where she wants them implemented not only in Michigan, but across the country,” he said. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has stated she would support a red flag law in Michigan; bills proposing such a move have languished in committee since early 2019. Bishop said it was important for residents to “send a message” to lawmakers that any such legislation would be vigorously opposed.

Two Republican candidates running for Rep. Larry Inman’s seat representing Grand Traverse County’s 104th district spoke in favor of the resolution Wednesday. John Roth criticized red flag laws, saying they had “been abused in multiple places around the country already.” Roth said he was skeptical of opponents who said the laws were not trying to take away firearms from their owners, but rather enact reasonable restrictions on guns. “There’s always back-door deals that try and take our guns,” he said. Heather Cerone, also running for the 104th seat, said she was attending the meeting “not as a candidate” but as a single mother of a young daughter.

“The fact that we have these unconstitutional laws coming up to take away our rights as citizens, my right as a mother to protect myself and my little girl, is insane,” she said. “I’m asking you to pass this resolution today, (because) we do have these lawmakers that seem to want to interpret the Constitution themselves.”

Other sanctuary supporters spoke about the need to allow residents to defend themselves from tyranny, and argued that the ability to protect oneself and one’s family was a God-given right. Opponents of the resolution, meanwhile, contested that most freedoms and rights granted by the Constitution are balanced by accompanying responsibilities and restrictions, and pointed to the need to address growing incidents of gun violence and mass shootings. Several teachers and healthcare professionals took to the podium to decry the resolution. Other opponents called the county’s resolution political grandstanding, questioning why local officials were taking positions on state and federal policies.

“Do the work you were elected to do,” said Brenda Rusch, comparing the resolution to past non-local issues commissioners have debated, including Line 5 and census citizenship question resolutions. “You are out of the scope of your jurisdiction on these vacuous resolutions.” Interlochen resident Steve Horne said the sanctuary resolution was “superfluous,” since both the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions already protect gun ownership. “You are picking one amendment out of the Bill of Rights to focus on, and I think that speaks to a personal and narrow political agenda and is therefore not warranted,” he said. Linda Koebert told commissioners it was not “patriotic or moral to pass a resolution that says, ‘If you pass laws I don’t agree with, I will refuse to comply.’ That leads to anarchy, and I’m pretty sure none of you want that.”

The hours-long debate often turned contentious and emotional, with audience members loudly cheering and applauding some speakers and shaking their heads and jeering at others. After one public commenter questioned the presence of Proud Boys members at the meeting – a far-right men’s organization that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – Chair Rob Hentschel gave the group speaking time to explain their stances to the audience. “I’m not trying to promote the group, but anytime somebody is making disparaging remarks, I think people should have an opportunity to answer them,” he said.

Following extensive public comment, commissioners debated the resolution themselves before voting 4-2 to approve the measure. Hentschel and Commissioners Ron Clous, Brad Jewett, and Gordie LaPointe voted in support, with Commissioners Bryce Hundley and Sonny Wheelock opposed. Commissioner Betsy Coffia was absent. Explaining his opposition, Hundley said he was concerned about groups “glorifying the gun” and focusing on the Second Amendment as “the only one that matters.” Wheelock, who said he was a gun owner but also had vivid memories of responding to gun suicides and homicides as an EMT, said he didn’t believe county commissioners were elected to pass “symbolic political statements.” Wheelock said he would not put any restrictions – symbolic or otherwise – on local law enforcement. “I am not going to support a resolution that restricts our sheriff’s department and our prosecutor’s office from enforcing the law,” he said.

But other commissioners defended the resolution, as well as the right of the county board to take it up. “Even though it may be symbolic, it bears weight,” said Jewett. LaPointe added he was supporting the resolution because he was “concerned with how far” legislative gun reform would go. Hentschel said the issue was just one of many political and social issues debated by commissioners, and that it would help residents better understand the positions of their elected officials. “When you go to vote for your county commissioners, this is one more opportunity to know where they stand and if they stand for what’s important to you,” he said. “I certainly believe that the right to bear arms is something that keeps us all safe. It’s what protects all the other amendments.”

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