We see news about gun violence every day. Literally every day. We read. We turn the page, often without really noticing. It is all too routine and numbing. At this moment in Michigan, however, we have a heightened awareness. We have experienced a monumental tragedy on MSU’s campus. And, most importantly, gun safety proposals in the state legislature will finally receive hearings and, presumably, be put to a vote after many years of blockades against such proposals that have strong support from the public.
As we try to push our legislators to take beneficial actions, it is worthwhile to look closely at the news. How do the most recent news reports contribute to our understanding of the current situation?
1. The Washington Post published an opinion piece by an MSU senior that said, in part:
…. From elementary school, we have been trained to “run, hide or fight” because there is no guarantee that it will not happen to us. There is no sense of safety on any educational campus in this country.
I want a federal registry for every person who owns a firearm. I want consequences for gun owners for acts of violence carried out with their guns. I want universal background checks for the purchase of a weapon, ammunition, and accessories. I want red-flag laws. I want required training for anyone who owns or wishes to own a gun.
I know these measures would not prevent all gun-related deaths in this country, but they would prevent some. One more life lost to gun violence is too many, so any lives saved through these measures would be a victory…. (Hesse, 2023).
Are Michigan’s legislators willing to listen to the voices of students? Are WE willing to truly listen AND RESPOND by calling and emailing our representatives and senators to push them to act NOW on gun safety proposals?
2. Inevitably, whenever there is a shooting at an educational institution, there are people who see the solution as permitting and encouraging civilians to carry guns at schools and universities.
Advocates of this approach seldom acknowledge how spreading guns to new places creates new kinds of risks. Many seem to assume that untrained civilians are—much like the gun-carrying heroes in Hollywood movies—skilled in marksmanship and can not only shoot accurately, but also accurately analyze chaotic contexts to know who to shoot without harming bystanders. When police respond to actual emergency calls about someone with a gun will they end up killing the “hero” who has drawn a weapon and is standing at the scene of the event that generated the call? Such tragedies have happened before. Will the armed civilian “hero” shoot an actual hero who is holding a gun after disarming a shooter? The risk is there.
Moreover, advocacy for spreading guns to new places typically gives little consideration to the certainty that guns will be lost or stolen on a college campus, much like laptop computers are lost and stolen every day. In addition, an increase in firearms in untrained hands escalates the risk of accidental shootings from careless handling or, even worse, from risk-taking behavior in times and places that young people are irresponsible in their consumption of alcohol.
Reminders of these issues appear in the news with regularity, including this week’s report about a school superintendent in Texas who resigned from his position after a third grader found the gun that the superintendent carelessly left in an elementary school restroom (Chung, 2023). Any serious proposal should withstand scrutiny of its risks and benefits and not be based solely on wishful thinking and naïve beliefs.
3. Axios news service published the results of a national public opinion poll about public health. In response to a question about the greatest public health threat facing the United States, there were stark differences in viewpoints of Democrats and Republicans.
Among Democrats, “Gun or Firearms Access” was cited most frequently as the “greatest threat,” with 35 percent of respondents naming gun violence as the top problem but only 4 percent of Republicans sharing that view. By contrast, among Republicans, 37 percent cited “Opioids/Fentanyl” as the top public health problem, with only 17 percent of Democrats sharing that view (Allen, 2023).
One cannot help speculating that this partisan divide affects potential political cooperation and momentum in the pursuit of gun safety laws. Is the difference affected by contrasting beliefs about the Second Amendment and the definition of individuals’ gun rights? Probably. But the results also raise the question about differing perceptions of problems. Is there a way to illustrate to Republican voters and legislators the nature of harms from gun violence in rural areas and small towns? One potential pathway is to try to overcome the narrow view that the problem of gun violence is solely about crime. Instead, it may be fruitful to give greater emphasis to the ways in which easy gun access can contribute to suicides, which is—unbeknownst to many people—the leading cause of gun deaths and a problem especially affecting white men in rural areas and small towns. Increased awareness about the significant problem of suicide might be one way to foster better understanding and bipartisan cooperation, at least for some gun safety proposals.
The foregoing articles illuminate aspects of the challenges we face in advancing approaches to the reduction of risk and harm. Yet, at this very moment, the Michigan legislature is finally considering specific measures to address aspects of the state’s gun violence problem. The first three proposals to be considered are those cited by Governor Whitmer in her January State of the State speech: expanded background checks; penalties for gun owners who do not safely store their firearms to keep them out of children’s hands; and extreme risk protection orders enabling judges to temporarily remove firearms from the possession of those for whom there is evidence that they pose a threat to themselves or others.
Again, the news is useful to us in looking at these specific proposals. As we contact our legislators and encourage our friends and neighbors to do the same, we can look to articles, such as one in the Detroit Free Press, that describe the details of these initial proposed laws (Hendrickson, 2023). Informed advocacy provides a basis for effective advocacy. As we implore our elected officials to make our state a safer place, we should keep ourselves informed about the various aspects of gun violence that harm our society. These three proposals are just a starting point. There are compelling reasons to advocate for additional actions to reduce risk and harm. The time is now.
The opportunity for effective advocacy and action rests in our hands.
What will each of us do?
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Mike Allen, “One Big Thing: Red-Blue Health Fears,” Axios A.M., February 23, 2023 (axios.com).
Christine Chung, “Superintendent Resigns After Third Grader Found His Gun in School Bathroom,” New York Times, February 22, 2023 (nytimes.com)
Clara Hendrickson, “A Guide to Democrats’ Gun Safety Bills Introduced in Wake of MSU Shooting,” Detroit Free Press, February 23, 2023 (freep.com)
Lauren Hesse, “I Don’t Want to Die in a School Shooting,” Washington Post, February 22, 2023 (washingtonpost.com)