Those of us at MSU, as well as huge numbers of people across Michigan and the nation, are still coping with last week’s tragic shooting. One week after the shooting, I am still seeing MSU featured in national news stories. The other horrific shootings that have subsequently occurred elsewhere have not yet pushed MSU’s tragedy into the background. Presumably, MSU remains in the national consciousness because, as the home to students from across the state, nation, and world who represent every demographic group and social background, the shooting reminds us that everyone is at risk. No one is immune.
I am preparing to return to the classroom at MSU for the first time and I am unsure how my students are feeling. At the same time, I know that I do not feel ready to return to “normal,” whatever that will look like going forward. It remains difficult to write about these events when they are close at hand and as I am hearing from students who feel deeply affected. Yet, we need to keep talking about gun violence issues and their impacts upon all of us, including the ways in which our liberty is affected because caution and fear constrain our choices about where we go and what we do in our daily lives. The threat of gun violence impacts whether and how we trust others whom we encounter in American society. The existence of gun violence also challenges our ability to understand the experiences, fears, and reactions of others.
Rather than try to write much at this very moment, let me call attention to three news articles, two recent and one from the past. One reflects my personal concerns and the others tell us something about how to move forward and thereby finally push successfully for legislative actions that can reduce the risk and harm of gun violence.
From The Athletic, a New York Times-owned journalism outlet focused on sports: “Michigan State: A School, a Shooting, and a Team in the Aftermath” by Brendan Quinn (The Athletic, Feb. 20, 2023 (theathletic.com):
…. Gun violence and Michigan State are now inextricably tied.
“Question is, is anyone going to do anything about it?” says Chris Smith, the board chair and acting executive director of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
Smith is in his 29th year as a criminal justice professor at MSU. Among his course load this semester is a 400-level class, “Law and criminal justice policy.”
It’s held once a week. At night. In Berkey Hall.
Just so happens to not be on Mondays.
“The randomness of it all,” Smith says.
Seeing his own school serve as site of the 71st mass shooting in the U.S. this year, Smith says he’s “numb” to it happening at Michigan State. He says he’s never operated with the thought that MSU was immune, so it came as no surprise. “I follow it every day, I see these things every day, and the reality is, why wouldn’t it happen here?”
Smith’s angst, he says, isn’t shock that it happened but trying to understand and account for a student body with unknowable emotions.
“How do I address a room of students when I don’t know their individual experiences?” Smith wonders. “What buildings were they in? What did each person see? Did they know any victims? Do they know someone who had to jump out a classroom window to escape? Did they barricade themself in a room in this building? I don’t know what trauma each person experienced. I’m really concerned about them not wanting to come back.”
From the Detroit Free Press, “What We Learned from Surveying All 148 Michigan Lawmakers on Gun Safety Measures,” by Arpan Lobo, February 20, 2023 (freep.com):
…. All 20 Senate Democrats responded to the Free Press survey, making them the only caucus with 100% participation. For all three concepts [background checks, safe storage, and extreme risk protection orders], Senate Democrats answered “yes” to supporting them, with the exception of one lawmaker whose support for a red flag law [extreme risk protection order] was unclear….
But a handful of Republican senators answered “maybe” or “yes” to supporting concepts, signaling the potential for bipartisan support for bills on gun safety if and when the chamber takes up the recently introduced package….
No House Democrat who participated in the survey came out against any of the gun safety concepts. But the higher non-response rate among caucus members highlights the narrower political margins for House Democrats. If House Republicans unite in opposition to any particular measure, Democrats would need every single Democratic vote to pass it.
From the Washington Post, “Moms Demand Action Founder Shannon Watts, Who Took on the NRA, to Retire from Group She Created,” by John Woodrow Cox, January 9, 2023 (washingtonpost.com):
…. [I]n the spring of 2013, the U.S. Senate rejected President Barack Obama’s effort to overhaul the nation’s gun laws. Watts was in the Capitol, watching from the gallery, when one of those bills failed to pass by six votes.
Among the senators to reject the legislation was Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, who told reporters that calls to her office the day before the vote were “at least 7 to 1 against that bill.”
Watts never forgot that comment. Nine years later, when the chance for reform finally returned to Capitol Hill this summer after another deadly school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., she helped organize a massive lobbying effort that directed more than a million calls and messages to the Senate.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed Congress with relative ease, despite NRA opposition. The bill didn’t include many of the sweeping changes activists had long fought for, but it represented the first significant gun legislation to become federal law in three decades.
Todd C. Young of Indiana was one of 15 Senate Republicans who supported it, noting at the time that the “calls are about 10-to-1 in my office — 10 in favor of reasonable prohibitions.”
“It took us a decade,” Watts tweeted after she read his quote, “but no one today can out organize @MomsDemand.”
What should we take away from these articles?
- There is a great deal of pain, sadness, fear, and frustration about the MSU tragedy and the never-ending harmful events caused by gun violence. We can see it in the multiple rallies on the steps of the state Capitol in the past week and those we will see in coming days. Rallies can be useful for people to express themselves and to attract the attention of lawmakers. But rallies are not enough.
- This is a unique moment of opportunity to see legislative action in Michigan that can reduce the risks and harms of gun violence. The survey by the Detroit Free Press indicates that the legislature, with the support of Governor Whitmer, is poised to act. Moreover, gun violence need not be an issue that divides lawmakers by political party affiliation. There are Republican legislators who are considering giving support to certain new laws. At the same time, the demonstrated support for new laws is uncertain in our closely-divided legislature. The public must go beyond rallies and implore legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, to both take action on the first legislative proposals—background checks, safe storage, and extreme risk protection orders—and then continue to develop additional proposals to reduce the risks and harms of gun violence.
- The lesson learned by the founder of Moms Demand Action: If you want to see laws enacted to address issues of gun violence—call, call, call, and call again. Tell your legislators directly how they should vote. Don’t just do it by email or letter. Legislators actually keep a count of the calls. It is now time to identify your senator and representative in the Michigan legislature and call, call, call, and call again.
We must translate our pain and frustration into action. And now is the time to do so.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
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.