A sign 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
Just hours after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed on Thursday the first set of gun reform bills backed by students, families and communities traumatized by mass shootings at Michigan State University and Oxford High School, as well as other gun violence throughout the state, the Democratic-led House passed more legislation.
Those bills would permit a court to order the temporary removal of guns from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others, colloquially referred to as red flag laws.
Garnering uniform support among Democrats and vehement criticism from Republicans, House Bills 4145–4148 and Senate Bill 83 passed 56-51 along party lines on Thursday. Republican Reps. Timothy Beson (R-Bay City), William Bruck (R-Erie) and Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) were absent.
The bills would permit a judge to issue what’s known as an extreme risk protection order in an attempt to prevent someone from killing or harming themselves or others. Nineteen other states, including ones with Republican-led legislatures like Florida and Indiana, have enacted red flag legislation.
“Colleagues, firearms are the number one cause of death for children in this country; it’s unacceptable” said Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee who sponsored House Bill 4146. That bill would prohibit someone from purchasing new firearms while under an extreme risk protection order.
“It is a plague no other country suffers from,” Breen continued, referring to gun violence. “Grocery stores, schools, synagogues; they’ve all become battlefields…I am exhausted. I am tired. We are constantly reeling from one mass shooting to the next, and in between we have homicides, suicides and accidents.”
The extreme risk protection order legislation is the third and final package in a series of gun reform bills that Michigan lawmakers introduced in the wake of a Feb. 13 mass shooting that left three students dead and five others injured.
The House bills greenlit on Thursday differ slightly from what the Michigan Senate passed last month and now head to the Senate for final approval before going to Whitmer for her expected signature.
Republican lawmakers slammed the legislation, with many of the GOP legislators saying the Legislature should instead focus on increasing access to mental health services in order to reduce gun violence. Others, like Rep. Dave Prestin (R-Cedar River), said in addition to mental health support and improving school safety, gun violence could be reduced by promoting “the nuclear family rather than erode it and its inherent value to our society.”
Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Fort Gratiot), meanwhile, said “these bills call into question our longstanding belief as a nation and as a state of whether our rights are simply written on a piece of paper or whether they’re given to us by God.”
“We as a body are proposing the idea that a right granted by God can be taken from a citizen through the force of government,” Beeler continued.
In response, Breen pointed out that “God did not write the Second Amendment; men did in 1789.”
“In 1789, skilled militia men could fire off two musket balls in a minute,” Breen continued. “By comparison, the Sandy Hook shooter fired off 150 bullets in less than four minutes, or 38 bullets a minute. Think of what that does to a first grader’s body.”
A 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. killed 26 people. Twenty of those individuals were children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old.
After a number of Republican lawmakers said the answer to reducing gun violence was rooted in mental health, Democratic legislators emphasized that the Legislature can back both gun reform and mental health; the two, they noted, are not mutually exclusive.
Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) noted that countries around the world that have far less gun violence than the United States have not solved their mental health challenges. They have, however, limited access to firearms.
“We are the only country in the world where this happens regularly, and we have colleagues today talking about mental health,” Puri said. “Other countries have mental health issues…But other countries do not fear to send their children to school. Other countries do not have nearly 400 million guns in circulation. Other countries do not allow their citizens to have unabated, unchecked and unlimited access to guns.”
Canada, for example, has a firearm homicide rate of .5 per 100,000 people, compared to the United States’ rate of 4.12, according to a 2021 report from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. Following a 1989 shooting at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, where 14 engineering students were killed while in class, Canada enacted nationwide legislation that required safety courses, background checks and increased penalties for some gun crimes. In 2020, after a gunman killed 13 people in Nova Scotia, Canada banned about 1,500 models of assault-style firearms.
The United States – a place where there are more firearms than people and where gun violence has been the leading cause of death for children since 2020 – has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world. There are about 120.5 guns for every 100 people, which is about twice the number of the country with the second highest rate of gun ownership, Yemen.
As of 2017, Americans made up 4% of the world’s population but owned about 46% of the entire global stock of 857 million civilian firearms, according to the Small Arms Survey, a project from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), whose district includes Michigan State University, pointed out that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2023. As of Thursday, the United States has had 149 mass shootings in 103 days, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In the U.S., gun violence has claimed the lives of 11,883 people in 2023.
“This is a uniquely American problem,” Brixie said.
“MSU students grew up in a world where children are put on the frontlines and expected to keep themselves safe,” Brixie continued. “These frontlines are in their schools, the very places they should be safe to learn and grow. They’ve had to practice lockdown drills and learn to barricade classroom doors at the same time they’re learning addition, subtraction, long division and fractions. Many students have spent their whole lives scanning a room for an exit, thinking it’s inevitable they may someday experience a mass shooting.”
Puri also emphasized this point.
“We have failed an entire generation of American students,” he said. “We are now at a point of watching students’ lives through multiple mass shootings. Senseless gun violence in this country is a direct symptom of decades of government inaction and empty political platitudes.”
Thursday’s vote follows years of Democratic lawmakers introducing similar bills that languished in committee, never receiving hearings or votes from Republican leaders unwilling to take up the issue. Democrats maintained the governorship and gained a slim majority in the House and Senate in November’s election, leaving the Legislature able to enact gun reform legislation vehemently opposed by Republicans.
While GOP lawmakers have been vociferously opposed to gun reform legislation, their constituents have not.
A Michigan-wide survey recently conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group found 87.8% of Michigan voters support universal background checks for all firearms, including 77% of Republicans and 77.8% of Republican gun owners. Meanwhile, 85.5% of gun owners in general support background checks. Firearm owners in Michigan recently gathered at a press conference to call for gun reform.
Republican lawmakers, as well as Democrats in swing districts, have faced pressure from pro-gun activists to vote against any gun reform legislation. The Grand Rapids-based Great Lakes Gun Rights, for example, has vowed to launch recall campaigns for any lawmaker who votes for the bills meant to decrease gun violence.
Great Lakes Gun Rights also joined with another organization, Michigan Open Carry, to file a lawsuit against the Michigan House and Senate over the gun reform legislation. The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the state Court of Claims, alleges that lawmakers have intentionally violated the First and 14th Amendment rights of the two groups by not providing enough time for the organizations to offer testimony during legislative committee hearings regarding the proposed gun reform bills.
The groups asked Court of Claims Judge Thomas Cameron, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, to “issue a preliminary and permanent injunction” against the lawmakers “compelling compliance with the Open Meetings Act and/or enjoining further noncompliance.”
It’s not unusual for legislative leaders to restrict comment during public hearings; under the Republican-led Legislature, bills were pushed through without any hearings at all – like the highly controversial Right to Work legislation that was recently overturned with Democratic bills signed by Whitmer last month.
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