One year ago, a majority in the Virginia state legislature aligned with their governor to take actions intended to reduce the risk of gun violence. The members of that state’s General Assembly enacted a series of measures—amid emotional debate, controversy, and large scale protests—that reflected policy analysts’ conclusions about the types of gun laws that may reduce specific risks of injury and death. It is worth considering whether Virginia’s list of laws that took effect in July 2020 would provide benefits if enacted in other states (Albiges, 2020):
- Restored a prior Virginia law limiting handgun purchases to one per month unless a purchaser applies for special permission.
- Imposed a requirement that owners report any firearms that have been lost or stolen within 48 hours of discovering that the weapons are missing.
- Authorized cities and counties to create local ordinances to ban citizen-carried guns in government buildings, public recreation areas, and public events.
- Mandated universal background checks for gun sales in Virginia, including private sales and sales at gun shows (two types of sales that can fall outside of other background check laws).
- Created an extreme risk protection order law that permits judges to order the temporary removal of firearms from the possession of individuals who are shown by evidence in a court hearing to pose a threat to themselves or others.
- Required daycare facilities in family homes to lock firearms in safes or cabinets during hours of operation.
- Made it a misdemeanor crime to recklessly leave a loaded firearm around children under the age of 14.
- Banned devices designed to enable semi-automatic weapons to fire more than one bullet with a single trigger pull.
- Made purchases of gun safes exempt from sales tax.
- Required people who are subject to permanent protective orders to surrender their firearms within 24 hours.
Whether or not these specific laws would be the best policies for Michigan, their creation reflects the possibility that circumstances can exist in which these issues are discussed rather than blocked from consideration in legislative processes. It should also be noted that, consistent with the compromises that are characteristic of the legislative process, advocates of gun control did not achieve all of their objectives and the adverse consequences predicted by opponents are not underway. The Virginia legislature declined to approve a proposed ban on the sales of military-style rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. And—contrary to some of the hyperbolic rhetoric that one hears in these debates—the sky did not fall, individual freedom did not end, and the government did not “take away everyone’s guns.”
In Michigan, one aspiration ought to be the recognition of gun violence issues that touch lives across the political spectrum: gun suicides—which are particularly prevalent among white men in rural areas; accidental shootings by children who gain access to unsecured firearms in their homes; and the high risk of harm from perpetrators of domestic violence who have continued access to firearms. Is it possible to set aside emotional beliefs and ideology in order to undertake serious consideration of potential Second Amendment-compliant measures directed at specific problems? That’s the hope. Unfortunately, many events in the past year necessarily raise fears that we are moving farther away from our capacity for policy-focused discussion and analysis of these issues.
Michigan has been repeatedly featured in national news stories for the visible intrusion of firearms in governing processes. In particular, the entire nation knows about the intimidating presence of armed people in the visitors’ gallery at Michigan’s capitol building, including people later charged with plotting to kidnap the governor, as well as disputes over banning openly-carried firearms at Michigan’s polling places on election days. The New York Times just published a lengthy story about Michigan politicians becoming increasingly aligned with, legitimizing, and seeking support from armed citizen militias (Kirkpatrick and McIntire, 2021). Elsewhere, members of Congress brag about bringing guns to the U.S. Capitol (Vaillancourt, 2021). A teenager is treated as a hero by some people after he illegally took a firearm to a Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin and killed two people, apparently imagining himself to be a member of a militia (Caldwell, 2021). A Missouri couple who threatened Black Lives Matter protesters with guns for merely walking past their house were honored for their actions by being invited speakers at the Republican National Convention (Greve, 2020). News reports showed that some of the terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 were carrying concealed firearms and the nation is very lucky that these guns were not used to kill law enforcement officers (Steinhauer, 2021). At this moment, we cannot avoid wondering about the extent to which the frequent visibility of citizen-carried firearms at political events is contributing to the near-record setting pace of firearms sales in recent weeks.
What is the way forward in seeking to reduce the risks of gun violence? Given that the events of the past year make it feel as if we have taken two steps backward on these issues, this is a difficult question to answer. Can we separate the symbols and substance of firearms policy from their current entanglement with political disputes about the country’s future? Obviously, this question poses a huge challenge with no easy, immediate answers. Yet, as we think about how we might encourage calm consideration of specific gun violence problems that may be amenable to targeted legislative action, we can remind ourselves that less than one year ago Virginia provided an example of what is possible. We need to remind the public about the Virginia example as we ride out the current political storm. Otherwise, it may be too easy to succumb to fatalistic pessimism in these difficult and disheartening times. With persistence, the arc of progress remains in our hands even as its path and pace may be longer and slower than we once hoped.
M. Albiges, “These 10 New Virginia Gun Laws Go Into Effect Next Week,” Norfolk (VA) Virginian-Pilot, June 27, 2020.
T. Caldwell, “Prosecutors Push to Rearrest Kyle Rittenhouse. Here’s How the Case Has Unfolded Since He Posted Bail,” CNN, February 4, 2021.
J. Greve, “St. Louis Couple Who Threatened Black Lives Matter Protesters Speak at RNC,” The Guardian, August 25, 2020.
D. Kirkpatrick and M. McIntire, “ ‘Its Own Domestic Army’: How the G.O.P. Allied Itself with Militants,” New York Times, February 8, 2021.
J. Steinhauer, “Police in Washington Seize 5 Guns and Arrest at Least 13 During Violent Capitol Protest,” New York Times, January 6, 2021.
C. Vaillancourt, “Cawthorn: Mob that Breached Capitol ‘Disgusting and Pathetic,’” Smoky Mountain News, January 7, 2021.
GUNS DON'T BELONG IN THE CAPITOL.
The Michigan Capitol Commission voted unanimously to support a limited prohibition on citizen-carried firearms inside the state Capitol. However, this ban does not apply to the Capitol grounds or to individuals with conceal carry permits. While an important first step, the Capitol Commission has a long way to go. Show your support and urge your representatives to ban all citizen firearms on the Capitol grounds!
Let’s make our voices heard and put an end to this dangerous practice!