Local Officials Take to Social Media After Judge Blocks Election Gun Ban

According to an Associated Press (AP) report Tuesday, a judge has blocked a ban on the open display of firearms at polling places issued recently by Michigan Secretary of State (SOS) Jocelyn Benson. The ban came in the form of a directive from Benson on October 16 and was to be in effect all day during the November 3 General Election. It was to be in effect within 100 feet of all polling locations.

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray said Benson went beyond the capacity of her authority in issuing the ban, according to AP. Murray’s decision came after a challenge from gun rights advocates. The AP report said, “critics argued that Benson failed to go through a formal rule-making process as required under state law.”

Last week, St. Joseph County Sheriff Mark A. Lillywhite called Benson’s directive “unenforceable,” since it did not have the power of a legal statute behind it. Without such a statute, Lillywhite said, his department could not make arrests in order to enforce the ban. Two statewide law enforcement associations, that which represents police chiefs and that which represents sheriffs, both issued statements that more or less mimicked Lillywhite’s argument.

Three Rivers Police Chief Tom Bringman said last week that regardless of how Benson’s directive plays out, Three Rivers voting precincts all report to a polling station at Riverside Church, which has its own rules pertaining to firearms. Bringman said a member of the Three Rivers Police Department at that time was working to determine what those rules are, and how they would affect the department’s policy on Election Day. Regardless, he said, TRPD auxiliaries will be stationed at the polls on Election Day in the interest of public assurance.

Lillywhite posted a link to the AP news report shortly after it was released Tuesday on his Facebook page. The comments section on his post quickly turned into a conversation between several current and prospective public officials.

Comment by Commissioner Balog regarding Tuesday’s court decision on Benson’s Election Day firearms directive. (Facebook screenshot)

First District St. Joseph County Commissioner Allen Balog wrote, “I had no intentions of open carry when I cast my vote until she said I couldn’t. Even without the Michigan Supreme Court ruling I was going to.” Regarding Benson’s directive, Balog said, “they are going to appeal it to who? (The) Michigan Supreme Court has spoken! It will take a couple years to get to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

In a ruling separate from Murray’s ruling, the Michigan Supreme Court last month nullified a series of Executive Orders by Governor Gretchen Whitmer pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling specified that Whitmer’s Executive Orders were unconstitutional, but reports on the ruling do not specify whether it included language indicating whether it might pertain to other types of directives or those issued by other state officials.

On Lillywhite’s thread, 16 additional commenters had said they stand with the Sheriff in his stance on the issue as of 8 p.m. Tuesday. Fabius Township Clerk Carol Wilkins said, “no one will have a problem carrying in my precinct!”

Comments by Lillywhite and Undersheriff Jason Bingaman regarding Benson’s election firearms directive. Names of non-public-officials are hidden. (Facebook screenshot compilation)

Several public officials, including Lillywhite, responded to one commenter asking “why do you HAVE to have a weapon when you vote, especially when we vote at schools?” Several private commenters said the right to carry weapons at the polls is constitutionally protected. St. Joseph County Undersheriff Jason Bingaman said, “I completely respect your right not to. But the bottom line is it is the people’s right if they choose to, regardless if other people like it or not.” In a later comment, Bingaman said, “there is no life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without safety.”

One commenter said, “we vote at a church and they will not let you carry inside.” In response, Lillywhite said, “a polling place is considered that, nothing more.” Both comments were subsequently deleted.

Comments by Sheriff Lillywhite and Fabius Township Secretary Carol Wilkins regarding Benson’s firearms directive. Lillywhite’s comment and the one to which it was responding were subsequently deleted. Names of non-public-officials are hidden. (Facebook screenshot)

Last week, when Watershed Voice reported on Lillywhite’s position regarding the enforceability of Benson’s directive, Andrew George, Democratic candidate for th First District County Commissioner seat, said in a Facebook comment that he reported Lillywhite’s position to Michigan Attorney General (AG) Dana Nessel. In his comments on the AP story Tuesday evening, Lillywhite tagged George with the comment, “contact your AG???”

In response to Murray’s Tuesday ruling, Nessel’s Press Secretary Ryan Jarvi issued a statement which said, “We intend to immediately appeal the judge’s decision as this issue is of significant public interest and importance to our election process.” In his back-and-forth comments with Lillywhite, George said, “if the appeal is lost, then that’s the law of the land.”

Back-and-forth comments between Lillywhite and County Commission Candidate Andrew George regarding the legal process around Benson’s election firearms directive. Comments by non-public-officials are omitted. (Facebook screenshot compilation)

Lillywhite said the “law of the land you mentioned is actually what we are talking about, not a directive by someone not qualified to do so.” George replied, “The law allows for directives to be made and enforced. Directives are the law, subject to objection and the ruling of the courts. We are at the appeal process, currently.”

In a later comment, George continued, “the judge struck down this specific directive (again, it’s being appealed), not the ability of the Governor, AG, or SOS to give legally-binding directives.” Lillywhite thanked George for “acknowledging at least that.”

Watershed Voice reached out to Lillywhite for comment, but as of publication time, had not heard back from him.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.

Watershed Voice Executive Editor Alek Haak-Frost contributed to this report.