It remains impossible for me to avoid thinking almost continuously about this week’s horrific tragedy. As an instructor who teaches in Berkey Hall, my close proximity to the site of the shooting and my deep concerns about my students’ traumatic experiences on that terrible evening keep me worried about what I will encounter next week when classes resume. Moreover, the constant stream of interview invitations and information requests directed to our organization from across Michigan and the nation necessarily keep my attention focused on the shock of the direct impact MSU experienced from the nation’s gun violence problems. As a result, a few key points have settled themselves in the forefront of my mind.
First, we need to avoid referring to those struck by bullets as “the victims” of the incident. They and their families are certainly the victims most deserving of our care and concern. They are the ones who directly experienced unimaginable catastrophic harm. Yet, we should not imply that they are the only victims. The victims here are not limited in number. Other people are also victims because they are deeply affected by the event, even if they did not experience physical injuries.
We need to think about the students who survived at the shooting sites or elsewhere around campus after experiencing an intense period of fear. These are young people whose sense of personal safety may be profoundly affected into the future. We need to consider parents and families, especially those whose loved ones were struck by bullets, but also those family members who suffered the trauma of not knowing the status of their loved ones during an unfolding crisis event. And, as well, there is everyone else in the United States (especially those of us in Michigan) who may feel less safe and less free to go where they want to go and do what they want to do because of their enhanced awareness that the potential danger of gun violence is all around us. All around all of us. Yes, our greatest concerns should be focused on the individuals who came face-to-face with the gunman as well as their families. But we cannot forget that these events have much more far-reaching victimizing effects.
Second, information has become available about those most profoundly harmed by the shooter. Even as we try to remain respectful of the privacy of those who remain hospitalized, a picture is emerging about who suffered the most catastrophic effects. The catastrophically-harmed victims, although few in number, reflect broad representation of people living in the United States. Black, White, Latinx, and Asian. Family roots ranging from migrant farm workers to people from affluent suburbs. U.S born and raised as well as visiting students from overseas. These victims represent the diversity we see around us in American society. They represent the diversity of the MSU community. And, most importantly, they give us that sad reminder that no one is immune from the risk of gun violence in a society with 400 million guns on the loose and very limited sensible regulation of firearms. Some people and some places face a higher probability of victimization from gun violence. But no one is immune. The recognition that the risk of harm is everywhere and threatens all of us ought to motivate everyone to join together—across all of the demographic and political lines that sometimes divide us—in order to speak out in a united way to implore our elected officials to move swiftly in taking action to reduce gun violence.
Third, the Michigan legislature does not need to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to enacting beneficial, research-backed gun safety laws. The legislature merely needs to look at the laws enacted in other states. Michigan is not a leader in this area. In making reference to extreme risk protection order laws, sometimes called “red flag laws,” Governor Whitmer noted in her State of the State address, “If Florida and Indiana can get this done, we sure can, right?” (Whitmer, 2023).
At this point, the three gun safety laws mentioned by Governor Whitmer in January’s State of the State address have been introduced in the Michigan Senate: universal background checks; safe storage requirements; and extreme risk protection orders (Sen. Sam Singh, 2023). Those proposals are necessary but insufficient if we want state government to do all that it can to reduce gun violence. A parallel situation existed in Virginia at the start of 2020 when the prior November election had led to an alignment of both houses of their legislature with a governor who supported gun safety measures. Acting in concert, the Virginia legislators and governor enacted a series of gun safety measures very quickly (Albiges, 2020; Dolan, 2021). In addition to the universal background checks, safe storage, and extreme risk protection order measures just introduced in the Michigan legislature, the Virginia legislature enacted additional laws, including:
(note: Since 2021, Michigan only bans openly-carried firearms by civilians inside the Capitol—not licensed concealed weapons inside the building or other firearms right outside the Capitol’s doors on capitol grounds)
These are examples from Virginia, but they do not reflect the full range of measures in existence in other states. Michigan should also consider such laws as waiting periods for gun purchases, limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines, and limits on the availability of military-style rifles.
Fourth, we know that there are those among us who are opponents of democracy and who use intimidation and threats of violence to try to influence public policy. For example, many elections officials around the country faced threats for conscientiously doing their jobs as disinformation was spread to convince people to fall for lies about elections being “stolen.” Those election officials stood strong in the face of threats and carried out their essential duties for the preservation of democracy.
It is worth noting that the Virginia legislature enacted its series of new gun safety laws—which occurred prior to the subsequent ban on guns near their capitol—even as protesters gathered outside with clearly implied intimidation on their minds by openly carrying firearms. We need Michigan’s leaders to show the same courage in moving forward to do all that they can do to enhance public health and safety—AND we already know that they are capable of such courage. Gov. Whitmer did not flinch when she learned that a group of extremists plotted to kidnap and murder her. Our legislators continued to do their jobs in the Capitol even as protesters menaced them by openly holding weapons of war in the visitor gallery a few feet above their heads in April 2020 (Oosting, 2020).
We need to learn lessons and draw inspiration from this week’s horrific event at MSU. The victimization imposed by this event ranges across the state, affecting all of the families of MSU students and staff as well parents and students at other institutions who are reminded of their vulnerability to gun violence. The demographic diversity of MSU’s most catastrophically-harmed victims provides a clear illustration that we are all at risk. Therefore, we need to be united in our actions that implore, push, and support the elected officials who can act against gun violence. It is time to look to the example of Virginia and reach out to our elected officials to let them know that we want action and that the three proposed bills are just a starting point. There is so much more than can and should be done. This is a golden moment of opportunity. It is the moment when everyone should urge our governor and legislators to move forward boldly, while we simultaneously applaud and support them for their courage in light of the inevitable opposition—and intimidation—that they will face.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Marie, Albiges, “These 10 New Virginia Gun Laws Go Into Effect Next Week,” Richmond Virginian-Pilot, June 27, 2020 (pilotonline.com)
Christina Amano Dolan, “Lawmakers Adopt Changes to Ban Guns in State Buildings, Capitol Square,” WHSV News, April 15, 2021 (whsv.com)
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, “State of the State Address,” Lansing, Michigan, January 25, 2023 (michigan.gov/whitmer/news/state-of-the-state/2023)
Jonathan Oosting, “Maybe It’s Time to Rethink Allowing Guns in Michigan Capitol, Officials Say,” Bridge Michigan, May 1, 2020 (bridgemi.com)
Sen. Sam Singh, “Taking Action After the Shooting at MSU,” Press Release, February 17, 2023 (senatedems.com/singh/)
Michigan State Criminal Justice Professor and Board Chairperson of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, Dr. Chris Smith discusses how effective gun reform legislation may be in preventing future mass shootings, as well as how academics like himself may approach a return to the classroom following Monday’s shooting at Michigan State University.