More than ‘thoughts and prayers’: Students want lawmakers to act after Oxford school shooting

‘We’re the school shooting generation,’ gun reform activist says

By: - November 30, 2021 9:02 pm

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would provide $11 billion in mental health services for schools and families and curb the illegal trafficking of guns known as straw purchases, in which a buyer can acquire a gun for someone else. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Following a shooting Tuesday that left three people dead and eight others injured at Oxford High School in Southeast Michigan, students, educators and Democratic officials across the state said it’s time for more than the usual issuance of “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings. It is, they said, time to figure out how to finally put an end to the gun violence that has, as one student told the Advance, made today’s youth “the school shooting generation.”

“Ultimately, tragedies like these are always a shock, but, in another way, it’s not that shocking because we’re facing a gun violence epidemic in our country and state,” said Megan Dombrowski, a political science student who founded a chapter of Students Demand Action, a group dedicated to ending gun violence across the country, at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

Oxford High School | Wikimedia Commons

“A lot of people offer thoughts and prayers and say now isn’t the time for action,” Dombrowski continued. “But we don’t have a moment to wait for action.”

That action, Dombrowski said, entails both state and federal lawmakers ensuring that gun owners lock up firearms in their homes and Michigan lawmakers passing proposed legislation (Senate Bills 678 and 679 and House Bills 5371 and 5372) that would disarm people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, among other initiatives centered around curbing the gun violence that kills about 1,200 people every year in Michigan.

Among those 1,200 people are now three Oxford High School students: a 17-year-old girl, a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl, according to Oakland County police. Eight others were wounded, including one teacher. Two of the individuals wounded were in surgery Tuesday night and six others were at hospitals in stable condition, police said. 

A 15-year-old Oxford High School sophomore was taken into custody at the scene, police said. He had been armed with a semiautomatic handgun, according to police. 

The scene — which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer described during a Tuesday press conference as “every parent’s worst nightmare” — is one that has become all too familiar to students now growing up in the United States, said Dombrowski, who also sits on Students Demand Action’s National Advisory Board.

“In high school, every semester you’d get a new set of classes to go to, and the first thing I always did when I sat down was to see how easy it would be to hide in the room, how far away I was from the door; I always felt safer in classrooms with a closet,” said Dombrowski, who grew up in St. Clair Shores in Macomb County.

“This is something I wish more people in power knew: We’re the school shooting generation,” she continued. “It’s great to know there are more younger people coming to the Michigan state Legislature, but there are still people who don’t know what it’s like to go to school every day and wonder, ‘Am I going to die here?’ School should be the one place we can feel safe, thrive and gain knowledge. It’s really hard to do that when we’re not sure if we’re going to leave the building alive.”

Christopher Smith, board chair of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, also said lawmakers need to act around gun violence but expressed skepticism that would happen at the state level. He noted that any state bills that aim to regulate guns almost never receive a legislative hearing because Republicans, who control the state House and Senate, typically oppose the legislation.

“To be very frank, the issue of guns is at the very center of the cultural political divide, nationally and in Michigan,” Smith said. “And what that has meant in Michigan in recent years is that any bill that might regulate guns tends to be proposed by Democrats, and with Republicans in control of the Legislature, they can never even get a hearing. …This speaks to how guns have risen to a political cultural symbol for many people.”

Progressives find gun control support beyond traditional Dem areas

Both Dombrowski and Smith emphasized they and others working for gun regulations are not anti-gun but want to promote safer gun ownership.

“Our hope is people can take one step back and don’t view any discussion about guns as a desire to take away all your guns,” Smith said. “If you did public opinion polls, a majority of people would support stronger background checks; they support people locking up their guns in their houses to keep them out of kids’ hands; they support someone’s firearms being temporarily removed if they’re proved to be in crisis.”

That public support, however, doesn’t translate to a Republican Party that’s receptive to more gun restrictions, Smith said.

“The problem is not just the cultural divide but who’s in office, what kinds of slogans appeal to their constituency, and to what extent are they afraid of pushback” if they work for gun safety, Smith added. 

That pushback can come in the form of dropped financial support from the National Rifle Association (NRA) — which has aggressively fought gun regulation for years and donates heavily to Republican lawmakers. But, Dombrowski said, she hopes that in the wake of another school shooting legislators aren’t “afraid of doing the right thing.”

“Don’t be afraid of NRA-backed extremism and talking points,” she said. “Ultimately, young people are becoming voters. We’re going to grow up, and we can vote you out.”

Some state and national leaders echoed the sentiment that action is needed. Everytown, a national gun violence prevention organization, said in a statement responding to the Oxford shooting that, between August and September this year, there were 56 instances of gunfire on school grounds that killed eight people and wounded 35. Firearms are the second leading cause of death among children and teens in Michigan, Everytown reported. 

“As Michiganders, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to protect each other from gun violence,” Whitmer said in a prepared statement. “No one should be afraid to go to school, work, a house of worship, or even their own home. Gun violence is a public health crisis that claims lives every day. We have the tools to reduce gun violence in Michigan. This is a time to come together and help our children feel safe at school.”

To be very frank, the issue of guns is at the very center of the cultural political divide, nationally and in Michigan. And what that has meant in Michigan in recent years is that any bill that might regulate guns tends to be proposed by Democrats, and with Republicans in control of the Legislature, they can never even get a hearing.

– Christopher Smith, board chair of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and MSU criminal justice professor

Republican legislators in Michigan issued a series of social media posts following the shooting.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), for example, tweeted, “As parents, Sue [his wife] and I cannot imagine the heartbreak and fear of the Oxford community today. We will keep the victims in our prayers and the families close to our hearts.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) tweeted, “Awful news from southeast Michigan — please keep the victims and our first responders in your prayers today.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel and other Democrats stressed it’s going to take more than prayers to curb gun violence in Michigan.

“We must act to properly address gun violence in our schools and the ongoing threat of another unconscionable tragedy if we continue to only offer thoughts and prayers,” Nessel said in a prepared statement. “Our kids deserve better.”  

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011 while meeting with constituents and went on to found the gun violence prevention organization Giffords, said “this tragedy didn’t have to happen.”

“We can express outrage and heartbreak over mass shooting after mass shooting and over the community violence, domestic violence, and firearm suicide that take 100 American lives daily, but it means nothing if our politicians refuse to act,” Giffords said in a press release. “How many more children will we allow to die before enough is enough?”

Ultimately, the children who have witnessed these school shootings will rise to power, Dombrowski said. And they will act if their politicians don’t.

“If [lawmakers] don’t get on the right side of history, we will vote them out,” Dombrowski said.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.