After Oxford, gun violence advocates felt helpless. But there’s hope for change in Michigan now.

In the wake of Monday’s mass shooting at MSU, the new Democratic majority has vowed to take swift action on gun reform

By: - February 19, 2023 4:53 am

Students from Michigan State University and surrounding communities protest for stricter gun laws at the Michigan Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023, following a mass shooting on campus earlier in the week. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Dread had consumed Winnie Brinks. 

Like parents across the state — and across the country and world — the new Senate majority leader spent Monday night calling and texting her daughter, a student at Michigan State University, in the wake of a mass shooting that killed three students and critically injured five others. 

“I felt like every parent, filled with horror,” Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said during a phone call with reporters on Tuesday.

Unlike every parent, Brinks can have a direct impact on gun violence in Michigan. She knows that — and she said the Democrats who now control the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years are poised to usher in reforms meant to curb gun violence in a state that has experienced two mass shootings at schools, one at MSU and one at Oxford High School, in a little more than one year.

State lawmakers including state Sens. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) look on as MSU students and activists gather at the state Capitol following the Feb. 13, 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University, Feb. 15, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

In Michigan, about 1,270 people die every year from gun violence — which has become the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. — and another 3,500 are injured. 

At MSU, the students who were killed Monday night were Alexandria Verner, 20, of Clawson; Brian Fraser, 20, of Grosse Pointe; and Arielle Anderson, 19, of Harper Woods. Another five students who were shot remained at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital, Michigan State University police said.

The numbers around gun violence are ones that keep rising in the state, as they do nationwide, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data by Everytown for Gun Safety. Everytown is a New York City-based nonprofit that advocates for gun reform nationwide.

From 2011 to 2020, the most recent year for which there is CDC data available, the rate of gun deaths jumped 24% in Michigan — meaning there were 298 more gun deaths in Michigan in 2020 compared to 2011, according to Everytown. The state’s rate of gun suicide climbed by 17% and gun homicides in Michigan rose by 31% during that same time period.

This ever-increasing gun violence, Brinks and other Democratic elected officials said, has to stop. And, they said, it can. 

“We know there are things we can do, and we are prepared to do those,” Brinks said. “In the past, we’ve had bills and policies and budget items that have been discussed to help address and decrease the impact of gun violence in our state. Those are things that have gone unheard in the halls of the Legislature, and we intend to change that.

“We simply cannot have a Legislature that continues to ignore those issues under our leadership,” Brinks added.

For years, Michigan Democrats have introduced gun reform legislation that has languished in committee, never receiving hearings or votes from Republican leaders unwilling to take up the issue.

Now, however, Michigan’s political landscape has shifted. In addition to having a Democratic governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel, Democrats control the Legislature. 

This change, Democrats said, led to them introducing three packages of gun reform legislation during the Senate’s legislative session on Thursday. Senate Bills 7678 would mandate universal background checks for all guns (currently, only the purchase of handguns requires a background check in Michigan). Senate Bills 7980 would require gun owners to safely store firearms that could be accessed by minors. Senate Bills 8386 would permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.

I felt like every parent, filled with horror.

– Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), whose daughter attends MSU

“This is so many years of people trying to do this; it’s unbelievable honestly,” Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), who is a sponsor of all of the gun reform bills introduced Thursday and who chairs the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus, said in an interview Thursday. “It’s giving me shivers.”

In the wake of the shootings at MSU and Oxford, which is in Bayer’s district, the senator said action around gun reform is especially meaningful to her.

“I started crying last night, and I didn’t stop until 11 o’clock today,” Bayer said in an interview on Tuesday. “I said the only solution is to get to work.” 

The legislation introduced on Thursday received immediate praise from gun reform advocates, including survivors of mass shootings in Michigan.

“Sen. Bayer has introduced legislation that will save lives,” Dylan Morris, a senior at Oxford High School who survived the mass shooting there last year and has gone on to found the gun reform group No Future Without Today, said on Thursday. “In the wake of the horror at MSU, the community has called for the leadership that Sen. Bayer has provided today. Strong new laws like these are needed to prevent more tragedy.”

Dylan Morris, a senior at Oxford High School student and the executive director of No Future Without Today, at the End Gun Violence Michigan press conference in Oxford, Michigan on Jan. 18, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Now that the bills have been introduced — which happened more quickly than lawmakers originally planned, in part because of the urgency felt after the MSU shooting — Democrats said the legislation is slated to quickly receive hearings and votes.

“Over the next few weeks, we will be talking about these bills … that have been implemented in places like Florida, in Indiana,”  Senate Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), an MSU alumnus and former mayor of East Lansing said during Thursday’s Senate session. “If they can be done in those Republican states, they can be done here, as well. 

“We will mourn, we will heal, and we will act,” Singh added. “And I hope that we can all do that together.”

The fact that lawmakers acted days after the mass shooting at MSU exists in stark contrast to Republican legislators’ response to the shooting at Oxford, after which no gun reforms were proposed, Democrats said. Following the Oxford shooting, Republicans resistant to gun reform were in charge of the House and Senate. 

“It hurts so much, but I’m comforted knowing we’ll actually do something about it this time,” Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) said in an interview Tuesday, referring to the mass shooting at MSU. “After Oxford, it felt very different. It really felt helpless.”

Should the gun reform bills reach the governor’s desk, which Democrats expect to happen, Whitmer has vowed to support them.

“We cannot keep living like this,” Whitmer said during a Tuesday press conference at MSU. “Our children are scared to go to school. People feel unsafe in their houses of worship, or local stores. As parents, we tell our kids it’s going to be OK. But the truth is words are not good enough. We must act and we will.”

Democrats emphasized that they have long been planning to introduce the gun reform legislation and said it wasn’t for a lack of interest that the bills weren’t introduced earlier, but rather because they were gathering input from a wide variety of leaders and groups — from Nessel to police and national gun reform groups — in order to revise the legislation. Lawmakers noted much of the legislation was close to a decade old — it hadn’t been revised when it was previously reintroduced because Democrats knew Republicans would not act on it — and needed to be updated. 

Talking to reporters following a rally held by MSU students outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Nessel said she and her office have been working intently with Democratic lawmakers on the bills since the legislators were sworn into office. 

When asked “what dynamics in Michigan” have kept the state from adopting gun reforms until now, Nessel succinctly said: “Republicans.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at a protest with students from Michigan State University and surrounding communities advocating for stricter gun laws at the Michigan Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023, following a mass shooting on MSU’s campus earlier in the week. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Republican lawmakers and gun violence

While Brinks and Bayer said they hope their Republican colleagues will join them to back gun reform — “We’d love to see unanimous support when the final legislation comes out,” Bayer said on Tuesday — Republicans have made no indication that they would do so following the MSU shooting. 

Instead, the day after the MSU shooting, House Republican leaders released a press release on Tuesday announcing a bipartisan package of bills, House Bills 40884100, that focuses on school safety efforts and access to mental health resources from a task force formed after the Oxford shooting in November 2021. 

It does not address gun reform.

The legislation would establish the School Safety and Mental Health Commission, which would identify best practices for schools to address mental health needs among students and support at-risk students; provide funding for intermediate schools to hire a safety and security coordinator and a mental health coordinator; require schools to review and update their safety plans every three years; expand OK2SAY, a confidential tip line for students and school staff to report concerns; and require the Michigan State Police to provide school safety and security training for school resource officers and staff at all Michigan schools.

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Marshall), Jan. 11, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

“My heart goes out to the victims, friends, and family members so horribly affected by the shooting at Michigan State,” Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) said in a press release. “This senseless tragedy reminds us how important it is to work together to keep our communities and classrooms safe. That’s why I’m thankful for the problem-solving and recommendations a Republican-led, bipartisan task force has already prepared for improving K-12 school safety.”

April Zeoli, an expert on gun violence who previously taught at Michigan State University and is now an associate professor of health management policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said access to mental health care is not an answer to reducing gun violence.

“Increasing access to mental health care is a great thing to do; everybody should have accessible and appropriate mental health care when they need it,” said Zeoli, who is also a faculty member of U of M’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. “However, access to mental health care is not something that’s going to drive down gun violence rates. It’s a solution to a different problem.

“Mental illness does not drive gun violence,” Zeoli said. “People often look at shooters who commit these horrific acts and assume that they were not in their right mind because they committed these horrific acts and that is simply not based on evidence.”

Additionally, individuals with mental illness, like depression or anxiety, are less likely to commit violence against others than the general public, Zeoli said. When people with mental illness do commit violence, it’s more likely to be against themselves, the professor noted.

Not only is there no evidence linking mental illness and gun violence, the push to do so endangers people with mental illness, Zeoli said.

“Linking mental illness and gun violence stigmatizes the community of people who have some kind of mental illness,” Zeoli said.

“There are people who have depression and who are responsible gun owners; if they felt like accessing [mental health] care would potentially expose them to being prohibited from having a gun or having a gun removed, they might not get care,” she added. “That is a real problem.”

Gun control advocates said they are deeply angered by Republicans’ opposition to basic reforms.

“The problem is the guns. Full stop,” said Ryan Bates, an organizer with End Gun Violence Michigan. “Republicans are doing everything they can to distract from the common sense gun violence measures that would actually save lives. It is outrageous and unacceptable.”

Mental illness does not drive gun violence. People often look at shooters who commit these horrific acts and assume that they were not in their right mind because they committed these horrific acts and that is simply not based on evidence.

– April Zeoli, an associate professor of health management policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health

Zeoli noted that states that have passed “gun safety laws” have lower rates of homicide; she specified that extreme risk protection orders laws, often colloquially referred to as “red flag” laws, are associated with reductions in firearm suicide and are “being used in response to threats of mass shootings.”

Kelly Dillaha, the mother of twins who attend MSU and were barricaded in their room just off campus during the mass shooting, said the school could not have done anything differently to prevent Monday’s violence. What would make a difference, she said, is gun reform.

“The vast majority of people in Michigan are for this kind of reform with our legislation, and I don’t think all of the legislators are listening to us,” said Dillaha, a Birmingham resident and the Michigan program director for the progressive women’s group Red Wine & Blue, which advocates for gun reform.

In addition to the bills introduced by Republicans, a flurry of press releases from Republican Senators and House members have focused on mental health access and school safety measures.

Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) said root causes of violence included “the devaluing of human life at every stage that has occurred over the last century” and “a general breakdown of morality and faith throughout our culture.” None of the Republicans’ statements advocated for gun reform, although Damoose’s statement did cite “firearms in the hands of criminals” as one root cause of violence. Many of the Republicans’ statements called for people to pray for those affected by the shooting.

Some GOP lawmakers were directly critical of gun reform.

“Since the shooting, elected officials have sought to politicize the tragedy without having a complete understanding of what occurred,” Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), who founded the Freedom Caucus, said in a press release. “Jumping to conclusions and crafting rash policy that illegally impedes upon the Second Amendment is not the correct solution to this crisis.”

Courts across the U.S. have upheld a wide range of gun laws as constitutional, including laws restricting the concealed and open carry of loaded guns in public, bans on assault weapons, extreme risk protection orders, safe storage requirements, and background checks.

Republican legislators’ opposition to gun reform comes at a time when there is public support for change. Democratic lawmakers said their days since both the Oxford and MSU shootings have included talking to a wide range of constituents who are traumatized, grieving and angry that gun reforms supported by Democratic and Republican voters weren’t achieved long ago.

National polls routinely show 80% to 90% of the general public, including the overwhelming majority of gun owners, back expanded background checks. 

A statewide survey conducted late last year by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group reported that 90% of the 600 participants would support requiring background checks for gun purchases. In the same survey, 74% reported backing so-called “red flag” laws, which permit a court to remove guns from individuals deemed as a threat to themselves or others.

On the morning of Feb. 15, 2023, students repainted The Rock at Michigan State University with a memorial to students lost in the mass shooting after a pro-gun message had been painted overnight. | Susan J, Demas

Banning guns at polling places

In addition to Democratic lawmakers’ push for gun reform, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced this week that she is working with state lawmakers to keep firearms away from polling places.

“The time for only thoughts and prayers is over,” Benson said in a press release Thursday. 

Other states like Ohio, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and South Carolina have banned firearms in polling places.

“The time for taking action to ensure Michiganders are safe — in schools, in grocery stores, in places where we vote and everywhere in between — is now,” said Benson, a Democrat who was reelected in November.

“They deserve to live in a democracy where their voices are heard and where they can cast their ballots free from intimidation or threats of violence,” she added. “That is the world I am fighting for.”

Benson’s announcement is part of a Michigan Voting Rights Act that she has been working with lawmakers to pass this year. Included in the act would be a requirement that no firearms are brought within 100 feet of polling places and other election venues.

The Voting Rights Act would also include expanding the number of jurisdictions that must translate election-related information into languages other than English, prohibit voter intimidation in elections, and enhance and clarify protections for voters with disabilities or others who need assistance to participate in elections.

Benson will be drafting the act with the input of clerks and voting advocates and is working on the legislation with state representatives and senators who serve on their chamber’s elections committee.

MSU students and activists demand gun reform following the Feb. 13, 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University, Feb. 15, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

‘This generation has gone through just too much’ 

In the days following the shooting at MSU, students whose lives have been engulfed by violence and trauma have called on lawmakers to act on gun reform.

Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) noted the work of MSU students who held a rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday. 

“These students had just had enough,” Anthony said. “They didn’t want to take selfies with politicians. They didn’t want to be used as martyrs to fulfill or drive any agenda. They just want us to get to work.

“They just want us to use our titles, our power to fix this stuff,” Anthony continued. “This generation has gone through just too much.”

It is this — that students have been through too much — that Democratic lawmakers have been largely focused on addressing in the wake of the shooting. 

“These [MSU] students were doing everything right to enrich their future; they were in class; they were studying,” Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said during Thursday’s legislative session. “But in this sick reality we live in, just going to school leaves you vulnerable to gun violence.”

These students were doing everything right to enrich their future; they were in class; they were studying. But in this sick reality we live in, just going to school leaves you vulnerable to gun violence.

– Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield)

Since two gunmen shot and killed 15 people at Columbine High School in 1999, there have been 366 shootings at schools, according to data compiled by the Washington Post. This violence exists at a time when mass shootings in general have been on the rise in the U.S. for years. MSU was the 67th mass shooting of 2023.

For Anthony, it is this never-ending wave of mass shootings in the country that has long weighed on her and makes her wonder, and doubtful, about when national gun reform will become a reality.

“There have been these moments that I’ve been sure they would be the tipping point,” Anthony told the Advance on Wednesday. “When I saw people who looked like my mother gunned down while praying in a church in South Carolina, when I saw people gunned down in Sandy Hook — I’ve been sure so many times. While I’d like to be sure a mass shooting at a popular, Big Ten institution will be the tipping point, I don’t know.”

At the state level, Anthony said she is more optimistic that change will come. 

“The Republican leadership has been cowards, and I think there’s going to be a shift,” she said. “The people who are in power now have an appetite and the wind at our backs in a way we haven’t in the last 40 years. You’ll see the change people voted for in the last election.”

As lawmakers work towards legislative change, they are also focusing on resources for a community deeply steeped in grief, Singh and Anthony said. To support those now living with trauma, Singh and his office have compiled a list of mental health resources that they will continue to update on their website.

Anthony’s office too has been working to connect the MSU community with resources to help them navigate the aftermath of the shooting.

“I’ve tried to use my platform for support for our community: getting people mental health resources, helping folks,” Anthony said. “I had a conversation the other day with a mother who lives in California who was trying to find a quick flight to give her child, an MSU student, a hug.” 

Michigan State University students and members of surrounding communities pay their respects for victims of the mass shooting on MSU’s campus at the Rock, which is painted to read “HOW MANY MORE?” on Feb. 14, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Lawmakers know their constituents are walking a long road to healing — and that grief is almost never a linear path.

“Students now have fear of going back to school; some have fear of just leaving where they feel safe — their dorm room or their house,” Singh said. “For a lot of leaders, especially those on campus — administrators and the broader East Lansing community leaders — it’s going to be, ‘How do we help these students and the broader community grapple with this?’ It’s not a one-day thing. It’s not once we get legislation, it goes away. That trauma is there probably for a lifetime.”

This is a point Bayer also emphasized: Trauma does not disappear. The trauma experienced by those impacted by the Oxford shooting, for example, has not dissipated, and survivors said it likely never will.

“This trauma, it doesn’t go away,” Bayer said. “It does something to your brain, and it doesn’t go away.”

It is that these students and community members should never have had to face such trauma in the first place that led House Majority Whip Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) to issue an emotional response that’s netted national attention.

“F—k your thoughts and prayers,” Puri said in a statement issued Monday night.

“What happened in East Lansing is unfortunately far too common,” Puri said. “Going to school in America, whether it’s pre-school or college, means risking your life every day to the threat of a mass shooting. Yet all we have offered up are empty solutions — traumatizing active shooter drills and bulletproof backpacks. We do not need to live like this. The United States is the only country where this happens.”

It was a statement borne from years of watching gunmen kill an endless stream of people across the United States — including at a Sikh temple where his family had worshiped and where his close friends still attended at the time of the shooting. On Aug. 5, 2012, a gunman killed six people at the temple. It was largely that incident — and a subsequent conversation about it with President Barack Obama — that inspired Puri to run for office.

The Republican leadership has been cowards, and I think there’s going to be a shift. The people who are in power now have an appetite and the wind at our backs in a way we haven’t in the last 40 years. You’ll see the change people voted for in the last election.

– Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

“I’m a legislator, but I’m also a father, a parent who had loved ones on campus. In that moment, I was angered, pissed off and broken,” Puri said of Monday night’s shooting.

“I was using my platform to amplify the sorrow and anger and raw emotion we all had after watching that [the MSU shooting] play out for hours,” he continued. 

While Puri noted that he has received some backlash from people angered over his statement, he emphasized that he’s not criticizing prayer or people of faith. However, Puri said, he is critical of what often feels like empty rhetoric from lawmakers who will issue calls for “thoughts and prayers” but won’t implement gun reform to stop the events prompting that language to begin with.

“I had a front row seat as a first-time legislator last term to watching Oxford play out and us not doing anything as a body about it,” Puri said. 

Like other Democrats, he’s optimistic that will no longer be the case. 

“I have a tremendous amount of hope and confidence that [gun reform] will get done,” Puri said. “I’m confident we can get this across the finish line.”

Reporter Andrew Roth contributed reporting to this story.

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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.

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