As mass shootings climb in the U.S., Michiganders are determined to end the violence

By: - May 11, 2023 3:21 am

A child crosses under caution tape at Robb Elementary School on May 25, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. According to reports, during the mass shooting, 19 students and 2 adults were killed, with the gunman fatally shot by law enforcement. | Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Eighty-four days after three students were shot and killed at Michigan State University, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began this week as she has done many times before: with an order to lower flags following a mass shooting in the United States.

This time, the governor’s order followed the mass shooting in Allen, Texas, where on Saturday a man who reportedly espoused racist, antisemitic and misogynist views used an AR-15 style assault weapon to fatally shoot eight people and wound seven others at an outdoor mall located about 25 miles north of Dallas. It was the 199th mass shooting of 2023. Michigan State University was home to the 67th mass shooting of the year back on Feb. 13.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

“Once again, we mourn for a community impacted by gun violence,” Whitmer said in a statement issued Monday. “Allen is now the next community to be the site of senseless violence. Our thoughts go out to the families and loved ones of those who were killed, those still fighting for their lives in the hospital, and the entire community that has been impacted.

“We cannot keep living like this,” the governor continued. “As a nation, we must keep working toward common sense solutions to prevent these tragedies. Michiganders are standing with Texans.” 

In a country where, as of Tuesday, there have been 208 mass shootings in 2023’s 129 days and one in five adults has had a family member killed by a firearm, the never-ending violence has left survivors in Michigan enraged and determined to enact change that will tackle the No. 1 cause of death for children and teens in the United States: guns.

“I was furious after I heard about the shooting in Texas this weekend,” said Dylan Morris, who survived the mass shooting that killed four students at Oxford High School in November 2021 and is graduating from the school next week. “I’m furious that a 6-year-old is the sole survivor of his family. I’m furious that eight lives have been lost. And I’m furious that a community is now shattered by senseless gun violence.”

Like other gun violence survivors in Michigan and nationwide have repeatedly emphasized, Morris said that “thoughts and prayers without action are meaningless.

“While Republican lawmakers are busy sending their prayers after the shooting in Texas, they should also be supporting a federal ban on assault weapons to adequately address the growing issue of gun violence around the country,” said Morris, who after the Oxford shooting went on to co-found the anti-gun violence group No Future Without Today.

Morris’ critique of GOP lawmakers follows what has become a now deeply familiar political response to the rising number of mass shootings that have left Americans afraid to go into the public spaces destroyed by gun violence: schools, movie theaters, dance floors, grocery stores, places of worship, and concerts, among a litany of other locations. 

In the wake of mass shootings, Democratic politicians largely call for legislation to curb gun violence – such as banning assault weapons, which the federal government did between 1994 and 2004 and which prompted the number of mass shootings to drop by 70% – while Republicans often solely focus on mental health and resist or outright condemn efforts to implement gun reforms.

We can’t normalize this; we can’t accept it as everyday practice. We have to be outraged by the tragedies so we are moved to action.

– James Densley, the co-founder of The Violence Project

Following the May 6 shooting in Texas, President Joe Biden again called for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that can hold large amounts of ammunition. 

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in the wake of both the mass shootings at the Allen mall and an elementary school in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead in May 2022, that the root cause of the violence was a “mental health crisis.” However, the Texas governor cut about $211 million from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees mental health initiatives in the state, over the course of 2021 and 2022. Those cuts also affected Medicaid, which is the largest single payer for mental health services in the U.S.

The Republican-led U.S. House also recently passed legislation that could result in as many as 1 million Michiganders losing their Medicaid coverage. Biden has vowed to veto the legislation should it land on his desk, which is unlikely with the resistance it faces in the Democratic-led U.S. Senate.

Michigan advocates working to end gun violence also said after the Allen, Texas, shooting that they want to see the federal government enact an assault weapons ban, as well as follow in Michigan’s footsteps and implement universal background checks, safe storage requirements and extreme risk protection order legislation. 

Last month, Whitmer signed legislation that requires background checks for all firearm purchases in Michigan and mandates that guns be safely stored in homes with minors. The governor is expected to soon sign extreme risk protection order legislation that would permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.

“We need an assault weapons ban,” said Ryan Bates, an organizer with End Gun Violence Michigan. “These are weapons of war that are designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible on a battlefield. There’s no reason why any person needs an assault weapon.”

Biden issued similar sentiments.

“Once again I ask Congress to send me a bill banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Enacting universal background checks. Requiring safe storage. Ending immunity for gun manufacturers,” the president said in a May 7 statement. “I will sign it immediately. We need nothing less to keep our streets safe.”

I was furious after I heard about the shooting in Texas this weekend. I’m furious that a 6-year-old is the sole survivor of his family. I’m furious that eight lives have been lost. And I’m furious that a community is now shattered by senseless gun violence.

– Dylan Morris, who graduates from Oxford High School next week

State Rep. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield Twp.), who was recently named the chair of the state’s bicameral Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus, said it’s the fact that Michigan is implementing universal background checks, safe storage bills and extreme risk protection order legislation that gives her hope that the country can change, even in the wake of yet another tragedy.

“Being able to focus on how we can help helps us manage what would otherwise feel like a completely overwhelming situation,” said Brabec, who in April replaced Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) as chair of the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus. “Giving us something to proactively do to effectuate change, that’s what we must focus on.”

Michigan isn’t done with legislation to curb gun violence, Brabec emphasized. Following the state’s gun reform package passing largely along party lines, Brabec said Democratic legislators are planning further action to curb gun violence.

Brabec’s caucus will soon hold its first meeting with the group’s new leadership, and the lawmaker said that gathering will feature information and policy recommendations from “three major national partners,” including Brady, Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords. After that, she said the caucus members will determine their next priorities. 

At the national level, Brabec said the gun safety groups’ priorities include “closing the partner loophole” to keep partners, including a boyfriend or girlfriend, from being able to purchase a gun if they’ve been convicted of domestic violence or have a personal protection order against them; community violence intervention; keeping polling locations and elections safe from gun violence, and “accountability for [gun] manufacturers.”

State Reps. Felicia Brabec (D-Ann Arbor) and Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) 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

Brabec noted there’s work being done to address a number of these national priorities from gun safety organizations at the state level, including legislation to ban firearms at polling places and another bill that would make it a felony to intimidate an election worker, proposed funding for community violence intervention initiatives in the upcoming budget, and lawmakers working on crafting legislation to address the partner loophole.

“To have these laws in place I think provides some hope,” Brabec said of the universal background checks, safe storage and extreme risk protection order legislation. “Now the question for us is what’s next? And how do we continue to build on that?”

State Republican lawmakers, who vehemently denounced the Democratic-sponsored gun reform legislation that was introduced following the Feb. 13 mass shooting at MSU, last week introduced six bills that would make it easier to carry a firearm without a permit in Michigan. Senate Bills 308313 would repeal sections of state law that currently make it a felony to carry a concealed firearm without a concealed pistol license and a misdemeanor for people with the concealed pistol licenses to possess guns in places like churches and hospitals.

“Danger can strike at any moment,” Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) said in a prepared statement. “Now, more than ever, it is essential that law-abiding citizens be prepared to protect themselves and their families. With crime and lawlessness on the rise, residents shouldn’t have to ask permission to better defend themselves.”

But according to researchers who have studied gun violence for years, increased access to firearms does not lead to decreased rates of gun violence. Instead, it often correlates with more gun violence.

“You can compare internationally to look at rates of gun violence, and you do see a correlation between countries that have the highest rates of gun violence tend to be the countries that have the highest rates of gun ownership,” James Densley, the co-founder of The Violence Project, said during an online forum on Monday evening. The Violence Project is a nonprofit that studies gun violence and maintains a database of mass shootings dating to 1966. Its research is funded by the National Institute of Justice.

In the U.S., which made up 4% of the world’s population and owned about 46% of its guns as of 2017, about 120 Americans die from gun violence every day, according to Everytown. No other high-income country suffers from such a high death toll from gun violence; the U.S. gun homicide rate is as much as 26 times that of other high-income countries, Everytown reported. The United States 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.

Mourners leave flowers at the MSU Union on Feb. 19, 2023, one of the locations where several students were shot during a mass shooting on Michigan State University’s campus. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

‘Mass shootings are preventable’

During Monday night’s forum, Densley, his fellow co-founder of The Violence Project, Jillian Peterson, and U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) expressed optimism that the U.S. can implement data-driven solutions to ending the gun violence that has risen across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After spending years of studying this phenomenon, we genuinely believe that mass shootings are preventable,” Densley said. “All of gun violence is preventable. And there are scientific and data-driven strategies to help us stop the violence. And that’s why we still come away from all of this with hope.”

Jillian Peterson, co-founder of The Violence Project, speaks during an online forum on gun violence on May 8, 2023. | Screenshot

The researchers said these solutions to curb or even end gun violence include reducing access to firearms, especially to individuals in crisis; red flag laws; universal background checks; limiting magazine capacity; holding social media companies accountable for the role they play in fueling gun violence; and funding for school-based mental health services. Peterson noted limiting the access to assault weapons is crucial, as “we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of AR-15 weapons being used in mass shootings.”

Over the last three years, AR-15 style weapons have been used in 60% of mass shootings in public spaces, Peterson said. Prior to that, it was about 20%. As to why that is, Peterson said part of the answer lies in mass shooters copying one another.

“It’s the lethality of that weapon and how many people you can kill quickly,” she said. “… I think there’s also become this real symbolism around the AR-15, and mass shooters mimic each other and study each other.”

Assault weapons are also “aggressively marketed to men,” Densley added.

“They are marketed to men primarily with this sort of symbolism around masculinity,” he said and noted that the AR-15 has been “labeled as ‘America’s gun.’”

While the researchers have hope the country can change, ending mass shootings remains a daunting task – particularly as gun violence rises.

“That increase in gun violence is throughout the country,” Densley said. “It’s happening in red states; it’s happening in blue states. It’s happening across the board.” 

Researchers have pointed to a wide array of reasons for why more gun violence is occurring, from misogyny and white supremacy to, Densely said, deteriorating trust in institutions. 

James Densley, co-founder of The Violence Project, speaks during an online forum on gun violence on May 8, 2023. | Screenshot

“We don’t trust journalists; we don’t trust scientists; we don’t trust politicians,” Densley said. “That can create a sense that the world’s out to get you, and then you add part of the social media ecosystem around that and that can be quite problematic. There’s all the disruption from the pandemic … which also is maybe part of this. And then we’re also seeing at the same time rising firearm sales across the United States.”

As the country sees the number of mass shootings climb, Densley said it’s imperative that residents do not become numb to this violence and instead work towards an end to these killings. 

“We can’t normalize this; we can’t accept it as everyday practice,” Densley said. “We have to be outraged by the tragedies so we are moved to action.”

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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.

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