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Michigan bans open carry at polls as gun groups vow resistance

Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, front right, speaks next to members of the Michigan Liberty Militia during the “American Patriot Rally-Sheriffs speak out” event at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., Monday, 18 May, 2020 ((MLive/Grand Rapids Press via the Associated Press))

Michigan is banning the open carrying of firearms at polling places this election day, according to a directive from state election officials.

“Fair, free and secure elections are the foundation of our democracy,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement on Friday.

“I am committed to ensuring all eligible Michigan citizens can freely exercise their fundamental right to vote without fear of threats, intimidation or harassment. Prohibiting the open-carry of firearms in areas where citizens cast their ballots is necessary to ensure every voter is protected.”

Concealed carry is still allowed under the rules, unless it was already banned at that specific location. The move instantly provoked fierce resistance from anti-government groups and gun rights organisations, which said they were considering legal action, according to the news site Bridge Michigan.

“I think the Second Amendment is pretty clear: the right to bear arms shall not be infringed upon,” Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel told Bridge, adding that he would instruct deputies to try and deescalate encounters rather than arrest people who brought guns to polling sites. Schendel is part of the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which believes sheriffs have the final say on the law in their jurisdiction, not state officials.

People are allowed to openly carry firearms in Michigan, including inside the state capitol, which many Americans learned when images of armed protesters inside the legislature demonstrating against coronavirus lockdowns went viral earlier this year.

The rule change is the latest development in a state that is wrestling with the question of how to balance free expression, voting, and the threat of violence more than anywhere else in the country.

Last week the FBI announced it had broken up a plot from armed, anti-government vigilante groups to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and storm the capitol to provoke a “civil war.” More than a dozen men have been arrested on state and federal charges so far.

Governor Whitmer responded to the news in part by criticising the president for not strongly condemning milita and white supremacist groups, who have railed against the governor for her coronavirus policies.

“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry,” she said in a speech, following the announcement of the arrests. “When our leaders speak, their words matter. They carry weight. When our leaders meet, encourage or fraternise with domestic terrorists, they legitimise their actions and they are complicit. When they stoke and contribute to hate speech, they are complicit.”

The president responded to this criticism first saying he denounced violence of any kind, then by echoing the same kind of hyperbolic language used by many of the armed protesters who targeted the governor.

Mr Trump said Gov Whitmer “wants to be dictator” in an interview on Thursday with Fox Business.

The comments come as the president has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to discredit the integrity of the election process in general. He has spread unfounded claims about mail-in voting fraud, threatened to use the Insurrection Act on election-night protesters, and took weeks to agree to a peaceful transfer of  power if need be. His campaign has also urged supporters in militaristic language to form an “army” of poll-watchers.

“We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation,” Donald Trump, Jr, the president’s son, said in a campaign video in September, alarming civil rights groups. “We need you to help us watch them.”

The symbiosis between the president and armed vigilante groups who support him, or at least have the same enemies as he does, marks a general fascist turn in American politics, one scholar told the The Independent last week.

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