Because of Michigan's gun laws, protesters were allowed to carry their assault weapons into the state capitol — but not their protest signs

Reuters/Seth HeraldA militia group with no political affiliation from Michigan stands in front of the Governors office after protesters occupied the state capitol building during a vote to approve the extension of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration/stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, U.S. April 30, 2020.
  • Armed Michigan protesters drew outrage after attending a session at the Michigan State Capitol on Thursday, flaunting their firearms.
  • It turns out, it’s legal to carry a weapon openly in public spaces in Michigan – mainly because there are no laws explicitly against doing so.
  • The protesters were within their rights to carry their weapons inside the building, “as long as the person is carrying the firearm with lawful intent and the firearm is not concealed,” according to Michigan State Police.
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Photos of armed militia members parading around Michigan’s Capitol on Thursday provoked shock, outrage, and questions of whether it’s legal to bring deadly weapons into a state legislature that’s in session – and if so, why?

As Michigan State Police explained to a number of media outlets, the protesters were well within their rights to carry their firearms inside the building.

It’s legal in Michigan to carry a firearm in public “as long as the person is carrying the firearm with lawful intent and the firearm is not concealed.”

Michigan armed protesters militiaReuters/Seth HeraldA protester yells at Michigan State Police after protesters occupied the state capitol building during a vote to approve the extension of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration/stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan, U.S. April 30, 2020.

But unlike most open-carry states, Michigan doesn’t actually have a law that explicitly permits firearms to be carried openly in public. Instead, Michigan State Police have cited the lack of laws against openly carrying firearms as de facto permission to do so.

“You will not find a law that states it is legal to openly carry a firearm. It is legal because there is no Michigan law that prohibits it; however, Michigan law limits the premises on which a person may carry a firearm,” police have said.

In Michigan, people who want to carry weapons must be over the age of 18 and own a legally registered gun – though people who want to carry concealed weapons must hold concealed pistol licenses.

Lawmakers said they were frightened by the armed protesters perched above them

The gun owners were at the Capitol to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s extension of the state’s stay-at-home order, which relaxed some restrictions around recreational activities but still kept most nonessential businesses shuttered.

A number of the protesters were armed members of local militia groups, according to Reuters, and roughly 100 of them crowded into the building Thursday afternoon to chant “let us work.”

Reuters reported that people had their temperatures taken before they were allowed inside, but apart from that, the protesters didn’t appear to be taking precautions to ward against the novel coronavirus, such as wearing masks or staying six feet apart.

While the protests raged on around them, the lawmakers in the building appeared uncomfortable and even frightened by the scene. State Sen. Dayna Polehanki tweeted that a number of her colleagues wore bulletproof vests to the session.

“I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today,” she said.

Polehanki later told CNN she and her colleagues did not feel safe with the armed protesters perched above them.

“I am no wimp. But what I saw at work yesterday at the Michigan State Capitol – which was a bunch of men on the balcony carrying rifles – I’m not embarrassed to say I was afraid,” she said.

In Michigan’s State Capitol, signs are banned but guns aren’t

The scene also drew renewed attention to an odd quirk in the Capitol’s rules around protests: Though the demonstrators were permitted bring their weapons indoors, protest signs were forbidden.

The rule sparked controversy in 2013 after a similar armed protest was permitted inside the capitol building, but signs weren’t.

Michigan protestsReuters/Seth HeraldA member of a militia group enters the state capitol building before the vote on the extension of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration/stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., April 30, 2020.

The Capitol facilities manager, Steve Benkovsky, told MLive at the time that the signs, fastened to sticks, were banned because there was a risk of damaging the building.

“We just worry about damaging the walls, because on the decorative paint, a sign turning the wrong way or even a rifle can gouge the thing,” he told MLive in 2013. “Until one of the legislators comes up and says, ‘Let’s make this a weapon-free zone,’ or they put in some stipulation like you can’t bring long rifles in here but you can wear sidearms, I’ve got to live with it. It’s not a fun thing though. It’s tough.”

Some seven years later, the rules still haven’t changed.

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