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In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation


In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation

Mar 17, 2023 | 4:22 am ET
By Anna Gustafson
In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation
The Beaumont Tower at Michigan State University is illuminated with green light | Andrew Roth

A little more than one month after a mass shooting killed three students at Michigan State University, the Democratic-led Senate on Thursday passed an 11-bill package that aims to curb and prevent the gun violence that has traumatized children, parents and communities across the state.

Garnering uniform support among Democrats and largely condemnation from Republicans, Senate Bills 7686 would mandate universal background checks for all firearm purchases in Michigan, require that gun owners safely store firearms that could be accessed by minors, and permit a court to order the temporary removal of guns from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others. 

In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation
Sen. Rosemary Bayer speaks at a press conference demanding gun control legislation on Feb. 20, 2023, one week after a mass shooting on the campus of Michigan State University. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), who chairs the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus and vehemently fought for gun reform following the November 2021 mass shooting that killed four students at Oxford High School, called the bills “some of the most important legislation that we will ever have a chance to vote on. 

“After years of talking about this, years of calling attention to the escalating gun violence in our state, after years of statewide polling of Republicans and Democrats, gun owners and non-gun owners telling us that they strongly favor gun safety legislation, after years of constituents calling and demanding that we do something about this, after years of things just getting worse, we are finally taking action to begin the process of making our state safer — making our kids, our families, all the people of Michigan safer,” Bayer said. 

“Today, we are finally going to do what the people of Michigan are overwhelmingly demanding that we do,” Bayer continued.

Nine of the bills approved by the Senate on Thursday were passed 20-17 along party lines. Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville) was not present and was excused from voting for the day. 

Two bills, SB 81 and SB 82, passed 22-15 with Republican Sens. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) and Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) backing the legislation. Senate bills 81 and 82 would exempt firearm safety devices from the sales tax. 

A portion of legislation passed in the Senate is similar to three bills approved by the House last week. House Bills 4138, 4142 and 4143 would require universal background checks for all firearm purchases in Michigan. Safe storage and extreme risk protection order bills are also before the House but have yet to be voted out of committee. Leaders in both chambers would need to decide which version of the bills would ultimately be sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a longtime proponent of gun reform who is expected to sign the legislation should it land on her desk.

On Wednesday, Whitmer tweeted that universal background checks, safe storage laws and extreme risk protection orders are “commonsense steps to keep guns out of the hands of those who represent a danger to themselves or others. These are steps we must take to improve public safety and save lives.”

Thursday’s Senate session was often an emotional one, with Democratic lawmakers sharing stories of constituents whose siblings have died from gun suicide, women who have been murdered by armed intimate partners, and the students who survived the shootings at MSU and Oxford and have since led a rallying cry for change in Michigan. 

As senators cast their final votes for the gun reform package, they made note of a visitor watching them from the Senate gallery: U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona who was partially paralyzed in a 2011 mass shooting. 

In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a rally in support of gun safety legislation with former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords on March 15, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Giffords, who founded the gun violence prevention group Giffords following the mass shooting in which she was wounded, joined fellow gun violence survivors, students, elected officials and others for a gun reform rally outside the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday.

“Folks on the other side may have critiques … but I think we need to really remember that the votes we’re taking are history-making, they’re long overdue and they absolutely will save lives,” Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said during Thursday’s session.

Thursday’s vote follows years of Democratic lawmakers introducing similar bills that languished in committee, never receiving hearings or votes from Republican leaders unwilling to take up the issue. Democrats maintained the governorship and gained a slim majority in the House and Senate in November’s election, leaving gun reform more likely to be enacted than in years past. Democratic senators introduced the 11-bill package just days after the mass shooting at MSU, and lawmakers have noted they had been working on the legislation long before that.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers often clashed during the Senate session, with Democrats criticizing GOP legislators for not acting on gun reform when they controlled the House and Senate — including in the aftermath of the shooting at Oxford — and Republicans lashing out against the concept of gun reform altogether. 

“Evil is very, very real,” Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) said. “Someone who is truly determined to commit evil will succeed in harming themselves or others, and there’s no law that we can pass here in this body that will forever prevent that.”

In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation
State Sen. Lana Theis attends a Republican gubernatorial in Howell on May 13, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) refuted that characterization, noting that lawmakers have, for example, passed legislation outlawing murder with the understanding that it will not prevent all killing. Legislators also pointed to research backing the effectiveness of similar legislation in other states and the fact that conservative states have enacted legislation akin to the bills proposed in Michigan. Nineteen other states have, for example, passed extreme risk protection order legislation — often referred to as red flag laws — including Republican-led legislatures in Florida and Indiana.

“This is all coming from people who seem to think that thoughts and prayers are a sufficient answer to the scourge of gun violence in our nation — from people who also had the power to work on gun safety, work on mental health, work on school safety for years and neglected that responsibility,” Irwin said following Theis’ criticism of the gun reform package.

A number of Republican senators disagreed with the gun reform legislation because they said the state should instead focus on enforcing current laws to reduce gun violence, as well as on mental health supports and school security measures. Sen. Mike Webber (R-Rochester Hills) on Thursday proposed a bill amendment that would allocate $1 billion for various school safety measures and the enforcement of gun laws now on the books. Democrats defeated the amendment, saying lawmakers will be able to include school safety funding in the budget process.

“After recent tragedies at MSU and Oxford High School, I understand the desire to do something, but passing more laws just to say you did something is terrible policy,” Sen. Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe) said.

Researchers who have spent years studying gun violence told the Advance in recent interviews that access to mental health services, especially for gun violence survivors, is crucial  — but a focus solely on mental health and school safety measures without addressing gun reform will not decrease gun violence. About 1,270 people die every year from gun violence in Michigan and another 2,437 are wounded, according to the national nonprofit gun reform advocacy group Everytown.

The bills passed in the Senate have widespread support in national and statewide polling, Democrats noted. 

A Michigan-wide survey recently conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group found 87.8% of Michigan voters support universal background checks for all firearms, including 77% of Republicans and 77.8% of Republican gun owners. Meanwhile, 85.5% of gun owners in general support background checks. Firearm owners in Michigan recently gathered at a press conference to call for gun reform.

“I’ve been listening to the people of Michigan, and I can tell you they’ve been blaming this Legislature; they’ve been blaming this very Senate, who for decades refused to do anything to prevent gun violence,” Irwin said. “Well, that’s not what we seem to be doing here today. Seems like the winds of change are blowing, and I’m hearing a lot of support form Michigan citizens who say, ‘Finally, finally, in the wake of these tragedies, the Legislature is doing something to reduce gun violence.’”

Republican lawmakers, as well as Democrats in swing districts, have faced pressure from pro-gun activists to vote against the reforms that passed Thursday. The Grand Rapids-based Great Lakes Gun Rights, for example, has vowed to launch recall campaigns for any lawmaker who votes for the bills meant to decrease gun violence.

“It is unconscionable for this to be used as a political suicide while gun violence has become the number one death of children in our country,” Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) said.

In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation
Dylan Morris, an Oxford High School senior and executive director of No Future Without Today, at the State of the State on Jan. 25, 2023. | Courtesy photo

Following the Senate’s vote, gun violence survivors issued emotional responses to the prospect of change in Michigan.

“After the shooting at Oxford High School, students and parents begged the politicians in Lansing to act, but they refused,” Dylan Morris, an Oxford High School senior who survived the mass shooting there and has gone on to lead the gun reform advocacy group No Future Without Today, said in a statement released Thursday by End Gun Violence Michigan. “Today is different. Our senators worked hand-in-hand with students and advocates to pass these bills that will save hundreds of lives.”

Saylor Reinders, president of MSU’s Students Demand Action, expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s been just over a month since the MSU shooting,” Reinders said in a statement issued Thursday by Everytown and Moms Demand Action. “Classes have resumed. The news has quieted down. But for the students who lived through it, we’ve spent a month reliving it; we’re still on edge, ready to run for cover.

“Right now, Michigan has a real opportunity to make meaningful change for generations of students to come and our leaders are heeding that call,” Reinders continued. “Voters have done our jobs, and now, lawmakers must do theirs.”

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) lauded the activism from gun reform advocates across Michigan — including those at Michigan State University, where Brinks’ daughter attends school.

In ‘history-making’ votes, Democratic-led Senate passes gun reform legislation
MSU students sit on the Michigan Capitol steps to demand gun reform following the Feb. 13, 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University, Feb. 15, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

“People are crying for change,” Brinks said. “They are desperate for those who have the power to act to do something, for us to do something.”

The Senate majority leader went on to say that while “one or even 11 bills are not going to be the entire solution, while the opposition will use that as an excuse to do nothing, we are using that as fuel to start taking steps now.”

It’s time, Brinks said, for lawmakers to “have as much courage as our MSU students were forced to have on Feb. 13, 2023,” she said. 

“I am asking everyone in this chamber to have as much heart as the students at Oxford were forced to have on Nov. 30, 2021, and after that when they began advocating for change,” Brinks added.