The crowd at a gun reform event led by Michigan State University students at Boji Tower in downtown Lansing on Feb. 27, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson
“Run, hide, fight.”
The students kept chanting, their voices filling a cavernous room in Boji Tower.
“Run, hide, fight.”
And again: The words that came to them in an email almost exactly two weeks ago.
“Run, hide, fight.”
Two weeks ago, they would have never imagined themselves in this room in the tallest building in downtown Lansing, repeating the words that Michigan State University sent to them as a Feb. 13 mass shooting left three students dead and five others in the hospital.
But on Monday afternoon, they were there, their clothing emblazoned with the words “Spartan Strong,” their signs saying, “FU NRA” and “how many more?”
There they were, telling lawmakers that they are done with thoughts and prayers. They are done with a lifetime of active shooter drills. They are done with wondering if this is the day they will die. When they don’t die, they are done with being called survivors. They don’t want to be forced to survive, they explained. They want to live.
“My parents came to this country to give my brother and I a better life, to achieve the American dream,” said Clarissa Mata, a Michigan State University senior and one of the organizers of Monday’s event that featured speeches from MSU students, professors, survivors of other mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and Oxford High School in Southeast Michigan, and legislators.
“They wanted us to have better resources, opportunities and experiences than they ever had,” continued Mata, whose parents are from Mexico. “My parents did not risk their lives coming to this country so their daughter could practice active shooter drills in elementary school. They did not risk their lives so their daughter at the age of 11 could hear about Sandy Hook and develop a fear of mass shootings.
“… My parents did not risk their lives so I could stand in front of you all today, two weeks after her own university experienced a school shooting, begging lawmakers to do something after decades of doing nothing.”
It was this plea for lawmakers to do something after years of inaction — both at the state and, largely, the federal levels — that echoed throughout the speeches given by students and professors whose lives were forever changed two weeks ago.
“I need lawmakers to know that we will remember in the November of 2024,” Mata said. “We will remember how it felt to receive that email on Monday, Feb. 13, how it felt to text our loved ones we love them, fearing it would be the last time. How it felt waiting hours for updates, listening to the police scanner, wishing for answers. How it felt to see the rest of the world celebrating Valentine’s Day when we were just starting to realize the effects of our long-lasting trauma. How it felt to lose a friend, a family member, a classmate, a loved one, a fellow Spartan.”
The names of the three students who died in the mass shooting too were repeated throughout the event: Alexandria Verner, 20, of Clawson; Brian Fraser, 20, of Grosse Pointe; and Arielle Anderson, 19, of Harper Woods.
“The greatest tragedy is that of the victims,” said Lauren Hull, the political director of the Michigan Federation of College Democrats. “Brian Fraser, Alexandria Verner, and Arielle Anderson: three names now synonymous with tragedy. I think it’s really important that we remember these are not just names; they’re people.”
And, speaker after speaker noted, two weeks ago, Verner, Fraser and Anderson were still alive. They were still laughing with friends, still studying, still thinking of the days and months and years to come.
Now, their names are being repeated at events around the country among college students who have never known a lifetime without being keenly aware of mass shootings at schools. Nearly a quarter of a century after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, there have been 366 shootings at schools — a statistic that translates to more than 338,000 students experiencing gun violence at school since 1999.
“I’m here today to show that my generation will no longer tolerate this,” said Charlotte Plotzke, a junior at Michigan State University. “Do better. If you’re a Republican who wants to keep taking hush money from the NRA, we will vote you out. If you’re more concerned about stripping away rights of the LGBTQ community than the uniquely American problem that is gun violence, we will be voting you out. If you claim to be pro-life and continue to watch us die, we will vote you out. Gun control works. Gun control is attainable. We are here today to demand action.”
Lawmakers vowed that action is coming. Legislators attending Monday’s event included U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) state Rep. John Fitzgerald (D-Wyoming) and state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing).
Stabenow said she wishes “I could tell you we have the capacity now in Congress” to enact national gun reform. While Republican lawmakers are barring that from happening, Stabenow urged students to keep fighting for change in Michigan and across the country.
“Don’t give up,” she said. “Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t only talk to the folks that you know are going to vote yes. Talk to the folks who are going to vote no and give them holy hell.”
Stabenow noted there was some movement around national gun reform following the May 2022 mass shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. In June, 15 Republican senators and 14 GOP House members, including then-U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), joined Democrats and voted for the most comprehensive federal gun reform legislation in 30 years.
At the state level, Michigan Democrats have for years 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, Democrats have a slim majority in the House and the Senate and control the governorship — which, lawmakers said Monday, translates to a far greater likelihood that they’ll be able to pass gun reform legislation. The week of the shooting at MSU, Democratic senators introduced a series of gun reform bills similar to legislation they’ve previously tried to pass.
The bills are:
- Senate Bills 76–78, which would mandate universal background checks for all guns (currently, only the purchase of handguns requires a background check in Michigan).
- Senate Bills 79–82, which would require gun owners to safely store firearms that could be accessed by minors.
- Senate Bills 83–86, which would permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.These orders are known as extreme risk protection orders, which are often colloquially referred to as red flag laws.
Last week, House Democrats announced they are introducing bills mirroring those in the Senate. Those bills were turned in Feb. 21 but have yet to be given bill numbers and assigned to committee because legislative sessions were canceled last week due to a winter storm. Amber McCann, the press secretary for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said that process will take place this week.
“For too long, the people who have had my job were not willing to do anything about gun violence,” Brinks said. “They said if we did, we would become a country we don’t recognize anymore. I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever want to be a country that willfully accepts the deaths of children and innocent people when there are real things that we can, and must, do to stop it. I’m here to say things are different in Lansing now.”
For those who have lived through mass shootings before MSU, including Jackie Matthews, an MSU student who was in Newtown, Conn. when the Sandy Hook shooting took place in 2012, and Dylan Morris, a senior at Oxford High School who survived the shooting there in November 2021, that promise must become a reality — or students will mobilize against the legislators who did not back gun reform.
“We may feel numb, angry and everything in between, but now is when our voices must be the loudest,” said Matthews, who sheltered in place at her middle school during the Sandy Hook shooting. “We cannot stop at the fading news headlines.
Matthews went on to urge state lawmakers to pass the gun reform bills before them.
“How many more bullets must be dodged; how many more prayers and thoughts can we receive before we see change that protects us?” Matthews asked.
Morris also urged lawmakers to pass the gun reform legislation.
“These protections are practical; they’re well understood; they will save lives,” Morris said.
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