Last night’s shootings at Michigan State University serve as another sobering reminder that gun violence is not something that happens to “other people.” Gun violence is all around us—sometimes unseen in the many gun suicides that are the leading cause of firearms deaths and sometimes very frighteningly visible as in the case of mass shootings. With more than 400 million guns in the hands of American civilians and a U.S. Supreme Court majority that seems intent on spreading the presence of guns in society, there is no easy cure for the gun violence problems we face. Yet, the daunting nature of the challenge we confront should not deter us from pushing ahead with the effort to save lives and spare families from terrible trauma.
According to Governor Whitmer’s State of the State speech three weeks ago, she and the legislative majority are pushing to enact new laws to broaden background checks, require safe storage of firearms to keep them out of the hands of children, and create a fair process for judges to temporarily remove firearms from the possession of people experiencing psychological difficulties or emotional crises. Various legislators will undoubtedly propose other gun safety laws modeled on those currently in existence in other states. No single law can guarantee that the tragic events at MSU will not be repeated elsewhere in our state. However, each one of these proposed laws can reduce the potential for specific kinds of gun tragedies by making the acquisition and possession of firearms more difficult for certain individuals, such as children, who create greater risks of harm. There is broad support among the public for a number of different gun safety measures and it is long past time for us to act despite fierce opposition by those with ideological beliefs about the benefits of guns being present everywhere in society. Research evidence tells us that limiting access to guns for certain people and specific contexts can help to save lives.
Unfortunately, we see recent developments around the country that will only serve to increase risk and harm. In February 2023, a federal court in Texas struck down a law barring gun possession by people subject to protective orders for domestic violence. The judges characterized themselves as following the new instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court’s emerging six-member majority—including three justices appointed in recent years by President Trump—that said gun restrictions can only survive Second Amendment scrutiny if there were comparable gun restrictions in 1791 (or 1868). Since legislators back then did not care about husbands’ violence against wives, therefore violence against wives and girlfriends today cannot justify removing firearms from perpetrators of such violence Frankly, the idea that contemporary gun policies concerning semi-automatic, military-style rifles should be based on the practices and beliefs of a sexist eighteenth-century society that knew only single-shot muskets is both shocking and incomprehensible (Asgarian, 2023).
Also in February 2023, the Missouri legislature rejected a proposal to prohibit children from openly carrying firearms without adult supervision. The legislator who proposed the law said “she brought the proposal to the chamber after police in her district requested tighter regulations to stop ’14-year-olds walking down the middle of the street in St. Louis carrying AR-15s [military-style, semi-automatic rifles]’” (Bella, 2023). As some commentators have observed, children who are not mature enough to purchase a ticket to a PG-13 movie are somehow considered mature enough to carry loaded firearms without supervision—at least in Missouri anyway.
As law and policy developments related to gun violence move in the wrong direction in some places, Michigan has the opportunity to move without delay to diminish risk and harm within our state. The tragic Oxford High School shooting spurred new discussions about gun violence in our state and the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting finally pushed Congress to take limited actions. Hopefully, something helpful can come from the MSU tragedy if it leads the governor and legislature to focus their immediate attention on taking action to reduce the risk of gun violence.
On a personal note, acts of gun violence can brush closely against anyone’s life. I have lived a privileged, upper-middle-class existence for most of my life. Yet, it is easy for me to think back on specific gun tragedies that were, in some respects, only “an arm’s length away” from my life. My wife and I have both lost cousins who were gun homicide victims. At least one of my schoolmates took his own life with a gun. Another schoolmate was seriously injured as a child while playing with a firearm. And now the horrific MSU shooting. I teach a class in Berkey Hall—the scene of the first shooting—in the early evening one day each week. My class is not on Mondays when the shooting actually occurred. But it is impossible to escape the recognition that I could have been more directly confronted with this act of gun violence if the shooter had just chosen a different day of the week—since the 911 calls played on the news describe violence in classrooms on the very hallway where my class meets. None of us are immune. We all have a shared interest in sensible actions to reduce the risks of gun violence. This is a moment to let your legislators know how you feel about what they need to do to decrease the risks that are all around us.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Roxanna Asgarian, “Appeals Ruling Says Alleged Domestic Abusers Have a Constitutional Right to Keep Their Guns,” The Texas Tribune, February 9, 2023 (texastribune.org).
Timothy Bella, “Missouri Republican Block Proposed Ban on Kids Carrying Guns in Public,” Washington Post, February 9, 2023 (washingtonpost.com).