A debate about guns is brewing in the City of Grand Rapids.
At Grand Rapids City Hall Tuesday night, several people had pistols holstered at their hips for a commission meeting.
They’re part of Michigan Open Carry, a group that’s pressuring commissioners to change a local law. It bans loaded firearms here, or any public place in Grand Rapids.
Mayor George Heartwell says he has a “very healthy respect for guns” but he doesn’t think they belong at city hall.
“Guns in public meetings knot up my stomach because they function to suppress free speech,” Heartwell said, “In the heat of a public debate on a contentious issues guns have a chilling impact on citizens and city commissioners.” In this case, Heartwell said he'd favor the right to free speech over the right to bear arms.
Heartwell admits the local law may violate state law, as the group alleges. He says he and city commissioners still have no intention to change it.
“Those that do not follow the law, especially those that are not interested in following the law, we call those criminals,” Tom Lambert said, “Generally what we do with criminals is we put them in jail. If you happen to be an elected official I guess you get a pass.”
Lambert started pushing for “clarity” in the local law after his friend from out of town was confused about where he could carry without getting in trouble.
“I have been working with; I should say attempting to work with the city for over three months now,” Lambert said. He says he’s contacted city leaders through email at first, “mostly trying to work outside the public eye.” But he says he was ignored.
In late December things got heated. Some of the group’s members, bearing arms at their hips, came to a city commission meeting days after the mass shooting in Connecticut. This meeting happened to have a lot of children there because of the mayor’s youth council and a public hearing about a new park. Some residents told the gun supporters they were offended.
“To be honest I don’t like coming to these meetings. People don’t like me coming to these meetings,” Lambert said. He says he wants to work with the city leaders and “certainly” avoid a court challenge.
In October, Michigan Open Carry won a lawsuit it filed against the Capitol Area District Library on a very similar basis.
“This is not about guns. It’s about state law,” President of Michigan Open Carry, Phillip Hofmeister said. He says the non-profit has several hundred members statewide.
Hofmeister looks at the TV cameras, saying he regrets the situation has come to “a media circus”.
“To the mayor; if he doesn’t want guns in the city council meeting, give us what we want, we’ll go away,” Hofmeister said.
“This isn’t about guns. This is about an intimidation tactic,” Grand Rapids resident Azizi Jasper said. He urged commissioners not to give into the pressure. “Guns should not be allowed in here. It makes people uncomfortable,” Azizi said.
Other residents told emotional stories about when they were not armed and needed it.
“Normally I carry my firearm but because that night I was in an area I couldn’t carry it, I didn’t have it on me,” Jon Cipriani told the commission about the night he and wife were the victims of an armed robbery in the city.
“I have a history in martial arts. I’m six-foot-six. I almost weigh 300 pounds. Two men had me down on the ground; I couldn’t do a thing besides watch my wife almost get murdered,” Cipriani said.
In a written statement he read aloud, Mayor Heartwell called on the state to implement “rational gun control measures”. He admitted issues are complicated but important for “our children’s future”.
“Gun laws in our state must be changed,” Heartwell declared. “We must keep guns out of the hands of criminals and sociopaths. We must ban assault-type military weapons for civilian possession. And we must keep guns out of public buildings including voting stations.”