Repealing the Ogemaw County Building Gun Ban
by Stuart Wayne
What can individual members of an organization like the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners (MCRGO) do to preserve our rights? Sometimes, more than we think. I recently had the opportunity to help set right a wrong, and I learned a lot from the experience.
On June 27th, 2001, the Ogemaw County Board of Commissioners passed Resolution 6-2-#7 banning firearms in all county buildings. "No Guns Allowed" signs were posted at every entrance to the County Building, which includes courtrooms, and to the County Building Annex and the County Probation and Parole buildings, neither of which include courtrooms. The Commissioners were responding to the State's Circuit and Probate Courts, which had jointly issued a Court Administrative Order that banned weapons in the "Ogemaw County Courthouse." The Board of Commissioners' sweeping move to comply with these court orders--banning firearms even in areas and buildings where no courtroom existed-appeared to be obviously illegal under Michigan Act 319 of 1990. This state law specifically bars local units of government from passing such limitations:
"A local unit of government shall not... enact or enforce any ordinance or regulation pertaining to, or regulate in any manner the... transportation, or possession of pistols or other firearms... except as otherwise provided by federal law or a law of this state."
The County had exceeded its authority, resulting in an unlawful level of control. What could I do as a private citizen? Not much, I thought. Of course, I wrote a "letter to the editor" deriding the ban and pointing out its illegality, and my letter was published in the Ogemaw County Herald pretty much as written. I also sent MCRGO's then-Executive Director a copy of the Herald's news article reporting the ban's enactment. I sat back to wait and see justice served.
Ogemaw County is a backwater--I realized that. MCRGO had plenty on its plate in 2001. Large downstate communities were making things hot for potential CPL holders with their unreasonable and illegal conditions on the implementation of our new shall-issue law. I fully understood that our tempest in an Ogemaw County teapot would have to wait its turn. So I waited some more.
Then, nearly two years later, MCRGO's loss to the City of Ferndale on this very issue was reversed in appellate court! "Hot dog!" I told myself. "That ban is history now!" I thought the wait to see my local government in compliance was over-but it wasn't. In September, 2003-six months after the Ferndale win--the "No Guns" signs were still up on every entrance to every Ogemaw County building! (The Sheriff's Department, while obviously a County building, was the one exception. And with good reason; the deputies all carry guns, and we are required to register our handguns there by state law. A blanket ban on firearms not only overstepped the law, but exceeded what was practical. Ogemaw County had to ignore its own resolution to conduct its business.)
Conversations followed with the new president of MCRGO, regarding our options. I confess that the discussions were primarily about lawyer's letters and possible lawsuits. I wasn't comfortable as a plaintiff in some future legal action; so the president put me in touch with MCRGO's attorney to see whether a letter from him might get things moving. The attorney needed information about Ogemaw County's court security plan before he could draft such a letter; I told him I would get a copy of it. That innocent offer marked the beginning of my real involvement in the repeal of the Ogemaw gun ban, because that's when I was first forced to confront my local officials.
I went into West Branch in early January, 2004 to track down this simple request. Talking to the County Clerk and the Emergency Management Director produced no security plan. If there was a formal court security plan in Ogemaw County, they were unaware of it. I opted instead to get the exact verbiage of that resolution which enabled the gun ban. Unfortunately, the County Clerk's office had just been reorganized and they couldn't find that document. However, the County Clerk was sympathetic to my concern about the legality of the Commission's action and kept looking. After my many trips to his office, he was also starting to recognize me, and my concerns, on sight!
When the County Clerk couldn't produce the original resolution for me, he took it upon himself to question the signs' legality at the Board of Commissioners meeting in early March. The Clerk called afterward to tell me that the County Sheriff, who was at the meeting, agreed that the signs were likely illegal! The Board held the question for an opinion by the County Prosecutor. At the next board meeting, the Clerk told me, the Prosecutor also agreed. The signs should come down! The only areas appropriate for firearm restriction were the second-floor courtrooms and corridors adjacent to them. A committee would meet within three weeks to determine the final wording and placement of signs, but enforcement of the ban would cease immediately.
I was tickled! I immediately e-mailed MCRGO's president, executive director and attorney with the good news. They were happy-congratulatory, even. The executive director asked me to write an On Target (MCRGO's magazine) article about it. [ed.: and I nagged Stu to let us here on the Firearm's Forum publish the article as well--with MCRGO's permission.] But something nagged at me. Where was the evidence, beyond a phone call from the County Clerk, that the ban had in fact been lifted? It seemed prudent to wait and see how this played out-once again, I waited.
Two months later, the signs were still up.
Once again, I called the County Clerk. He confessed that he was unaware of the progress on this issue, but agreed that something needed to be done about it. The next board meeting was a day later. Would I like to speak about the issue at that meeting? A great idea, I thought. I'll even volunteer to take the signs down myself! But the next day, I ran into the County Building for the meeting to find a grinning Clerk. "Did you see the signs are down?" he asked. I had been in such a hurry to get into the meeting that I hadn't looked! The Clerk had mentioned this issue to the Board of Commissioners President that morning. She had all the signs taken down. New signs restricted to the courtroom and adjacent corridors will go up in the near future.
So, what have I learned from this experience? First and foremost, I learned that waiting for MCRGO or any organization to come in and settle my problems for me may not be the most advantageous way to resolve an issue. My priorities are not necessarily their priorities. This isn't a complaint, but a statement of the realities of life. Rural Ogemaw County is much less important to the overall welfare of Michigan concealed pistol licensees than are urban Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland or even Kent County.
Second, I have learned that governmental inertia is great even at the local level. Civil servants need to be reminded on a regular basis of what their constituents want--in a friendly and non-confrontational manner to be sure, but reminded just the same. Follow-up is important!
Third, I have learned that gently applied pressure from within can achieve a goal with less resistance and at much less cost than the more formal and confrontational approaches of lawsuits and lawyer's letters. The Ogemaw County signs came down on May 26th, 2004 without one penny's expense to MCRGO or, ultimately, to us, the members. I finally could make good on my promise to MCRGO's executive director to write that magazine article, upon which this piece is based. Sometimes the system works--if you keep after it!