‘The youth of America were never meant to attend so many funerals’

Oxford shooting survivors call on lawmakers to pass gun reform legislation

By: - January 19, 2023 1:19 pm

The initials of the four students who were murdered at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021 are painted on a rock outside the school. The students who were killed were Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, and Justin Shilling. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Updated 3:35 p.m., 1/19/23 with additional comments from Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks

At first, there was chaos. 

As students ran from the bullets being fired into an Oxford High School hallway on Nov. 30, 2021, Maddie Johnson and her best friend, Madisyn Baldwin, were separated while the teenagers desperately looked for a safe space.

“All the classroom doors were closing, and I had no choice but to run for my life through the hallway until I found an open exit,” said Johnson, 18. 

When she got home, Johnson, who was a senior at the time, began frantically calling and texting her friends. She got responses from everyone, except for one person. 

“I found out a few hours later that Madisyn Baldwin, one of my favorite people on the planet, was gone,” Johnson said.

A sign outside Oxford High School. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Now, a little more than a year after a 15-year-old student shot and killed four other students — Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17 — Johnson is tired of people “telling me how bad they feel or how sorry they are.”

“I’m tired of thoughts and prayers that are not backed by action,” Johnson, who’s now a college freshman, said during a Wednesday press conference at which survivors of the Oxford shooting called on state lawmakers to quickly act on gun reform. Johnson is also the vice president of No Future Without Today, a gun reform organization that Oxford students formed in the wake of the shooting.

“I’m here to express the importance of legislation that can save many lives because the youth of America were never meant to attend so many funerals,” Johnson said.

The Oxford press conference was one of seven events that the End Gun Violence Michigan coalition led in cities across the state on Wednesday, including in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw and Marquette. At each location, gun reform advocates urged the Michigan Legislature — now led by Democrats for the first time in nearly 40 years — to pass bills that would put an end to gun violence being the No. 1 cause of death for children in the United States.

The advocates who spoke at the press conferences pleaded for lawmakers to back legislation that would address guns in homes with children being stored in a locked location, universal background checks for all firearm purchases, extreme risk protection orders that would allow a judge to temporarily remove firearms from an individual who may be at risk for harming themselves or others, and restrictions on the ability of domestic abusers to own guns.

Survivors of the Oxford High School shooting and other gun violence led a press conference in Oxford, Michigan on Jan. 18, 2023. The advocates called on state lawmakers to pass gun reform legislation in Michigan. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Democratic lawmakers have introduced gun reform legislation for years — including bills that addressed each of the four areas advocates cited as priorities during the press conferences — but the Republicans previously in control of the state House and Senate did not allow hearings or votes to be held on the bills. 

Following the November midterm elections in which Democrats took control of the state House and Senate and maintained control of the governorship, advocates and elected officials alike said change is on the horizon. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for “pursuing common sense reforms” during her inaugural address, and Democratic lawmakers said they are currently reviewing past gun reform bills in order to update and reintroduce them.

“Michiganders deserve to feel safe in their homes, schools, and communities. Full stop,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said Thursday. “For years, Democrats have been calling for commonsense, widely agreed-upon gun violence prevention measures that are proven to keep people safe, like safe storage and closing background check loopholes. Now that we have the gavel, we will deliver on smart, meaningful legislation that will have a real effect on reducing gun violence across the state.”

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), whose district includes Oxford and who chairs the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus, told the Advance on Thursday that lawmakers plan to reintroduce three major bill packages that would temporarily prohibit a person from possessing firearms if they could be a threat to themselves or others, expand universal background checks for guns to include all types of firearms, and mandate that guns in homes with children be safely stored. There will also be action on legislation that would prohibit abusers convicted of domestic violence crimes from possessing firearms, Bayer said.

“Many of us have personal experiences tied to [gun violence], and the reason so many people have been working on this is it’s personal,” said Bayer, who knew people at Oxford High School on the day of the shooting and repeatedly issued emotional pleas for her Republican colleagues to act on gun reform in the wake of the four students being murdered at Oxford. “Gun violence is the number one cause of death for children. It’s astonishing we haven’t fixed this yet. This is people’s lives we’re talking about.”

Sen. Stephanie Chang speaks at the 31st Annual Crime Victims’ Vigil, April 17, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Both Bayer and state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) emphasized there’s overwhelming public support for gun reform in Michigan, and across the country — including among Republicans. According to a July 2022 Detroit News poll of GOP primary voters in Michigan, 91.2% said they support universal background checks and 67.4% said they back red flag laws.

“We know there’s a broad majority of Michiganders who support these bills — Democratic and Republican voters alike,” said Chang, who, like Bayer, has been working on gun reform in the Michigan Legislature for years.

“I feel pretty optimistic, and I feel there’s so much public support for these bills that we can really build on this momentum and get it done,” Chang continued.

Democrats are hopeful there will be increasing bipartisan support to tackle gun violence — something Bayer said hasn’t happened in large part because gun lobbyists have explicitly threatened Republican lawmakers with funding primary challengers if they vote for gun reform.

“The gun lobby has said, ‘We will primary you with so much money you’ll never win another election ever again,’” Bayer said. 

Now, with Democrats in charge, Republican legislators will have to take a stance on gun reform by voting, Bayer noted.

“They never had to actually speak about this before because their leader would never let it come to a hearing or vote,” Bayer said. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”

The inaction by previous Republican-led legislatures has left students enraged, including those who survived the Oxford shooting. 

“I relieve my trauma constantly and share it with the world in hopes of making legislators, voters and leaders angry enough to do what it takes to bring us justice, but they rarely do,” Johnson said.

Former Oxford High School student Maddie Johnson, left, and Oxford High School senior Dylan Morris. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

“Why is the idea of passing common sense legislation scarier than the thought of losing your own child to murder?” she continued. “… Your career is not worth more than the life of a child. You are putting your campaign, your career, your future as a politician before the lives of our youth.”

Dylan Morris, a senior at Oxford High School and the executive director of No Future Without Today, said had there been stronger gun laws in Michigan, those who were murdered at Oxford may still be alive — and he and his peers would still have their childhoods. 

“Alongside my friends, we launched No Future Without Today, and we’ve had a lot of great response, but we’ve also had some negative response from older members of the community who say we’re just kids,” Morris said in an interview following the press conference. “My response to that is the moment the shooter accessed that unlocked firearm and decided to use it in that hallway was the moment we lost our childhoods. So we are not kids. We are doing stuff that no one should ever have to do.”

During the shooting, Morris and a group of other students were hiding in a classroom — where they “armed ourselves with scissors, a tape dispenser, and a hockey stick that was in the closet.” 

“We all had our eyes fixed on the doorknob, waiting for someone to retrieve us or to see if we were going to have to defend ourselves,” he said.

Lauren Jasinski, a teacher at Oxford at the time of the shooting who has since resigned, also lambasted legislators over their refusal to pass gun reforms.

“I started my career in 2012 and had to look my middle school students in the eye and not be able to promise them that they were safe at school following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary,” Jasinski said of the mass shooting that killed 26 people in Newtown, Conn. “As much as we would like to think this couldn’t happen to us, the inaction of our legislature has sent a clear message to students and teachers: Gun violence will be an accepted part of the public school experience.”

Lauren Jasinski, who was a teacher at Oxford High School at the time of the November 2021 shooting, speaks at the End Gun Violence Michigan press conference in Oxford on Jan. 18, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Just before the bullets started flying at Oxford, Jasinski was getting ready to start teaching her ninth grade world history class. Twenty-one of her 26 students were in the room when the shooting started. St. Juliana was on her way to Jasinski’s class when she was murdered.

“My classroom was physically closest to where the shooting started,” Jasinski said in an interview following the press conference. “The students who were killed were killed directly outside of my classroom.”

For three hours, Jasinski and her students sheltered in the classroom.

“We had to wait while the place we loved became a crime scene,” Jasinski said during the press conference. “We had our school taken from us; we had our sense of safety taken from us; we had joy and celebration taken from us. We had Justin, Hana, Tate and Madisyn taken from us. We shouldn’t have to be here. We shouldn’t have to know what this road to recovery is like. We shouldn’t have had to know how to attack an active shooter that day. We shouldn’t have had to give posthumous diplomas to two students last spring.”

The trauma that has come in the wake of the shooting has left Jasinski to wade through a never-ending sea of anxiety. She left her teaching position at Oxford in June in large part because of the trauma from the shooting.

“This isn’t going to end; I’m not going to be over this at some point in the future,” she said. “It’s just going to be a part of who I am forever now.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include 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. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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