GOP focus on mental health after MSU shooting will not reduce gun violence, experts say

Second Amendment


After the hundreds of mass shootings at schools in the United States over the past two-plus decades — 366 since 1999 —  there is, gun violence researchers said, a familiar political playbook that follows: Democratic lawmakers push for gun reform; Republicans largely do not.

Instead, GOP legislators focus on increasing access to mental health care. There’s talk of “evil” forces and a “godless” society driving the shootings. Fingers are pointed at violent video games and other entertainment. 

This has played out in the wake of mass shootings at places like Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman in 2012 killed 26 people — 20 of whom were between six and seven years old; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people in 2018; and Oxford High School in Southeast Michigan, where a gunman killed four students and injured seven people in November 2021. 

Now, it is playing out after a gunman killed three students and injured five others at Michigan State University on Feb. 13. At MSU, the students who were killed were Alexandria Verner, 20, of Clawson; Brian Fraser, 20, of Grosse Pointe; and Arielle Anderson, 19, of Harper Woods.

As Democratic lawmakers, who have a narrow majority in the state House and Senate, introduce gun reform bills following the MSU shooting and GOP lawmakers push a package of bills that focuses on increasing access to mental health and boosting school safety initiatives, like confidential tip lines, researchers and advocates note there is, in the aftermath of hundreds of school shootings, a trove of data around the violence and what’s driving it. 

And while Michigan Republicans issued a flurry of press releases citing mental health as one of the main issues that needs to be addressed following the MSU shooting, researchers who have spent decades studying gun violence said years of data does not back the GOP lawmakers’ claims that mental health is one of the main causes of the country’s mass shootings. 

That’s not to say the country isn’t experiencing a mental health crisis; we are. There are millions of Americans who are not accessing the mental health care they need. 

But, researchers said, that is a problem separate from mass shootings. Many of those who spoke to the Advance pointed to studies that report about 96% of gun violence incidents in the U.S. are caused by factors other than mental illness.

As a psychiatrist, I say I’m a traitor to my people if I cast aspersions on people who want to fund mental health — please do — but it’s unlikely to have an effect on mass shootings.

– Dr. Amy Barnhorst, associate director for the California Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California Davis and the vice chair for community mental health at the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry

“As a psychiatrist, I say I’m a traitor to my people if I cast aspersions on people who want to fund mental health — please do — but it’s unlikely to have an effect on mass shootings,” said Dr. Amy Barnhorst, associate director for the California Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California Davis and the vice chair for community mental health at the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry.

“Mass shootings have become in our country not a means to an end; they are an end,” Barnhorst continued. “There’s so many ways to get to that end: misogyny, racism, white supremacy, antisemitism, sometimes rage, sometimes religious extremism. Getting guns out of the hands of people who want to do that [commit a mass shooting], regardless of why, can make a big difference.”

Plus, researchers noted, countries around the world that have far less gun violence than the United States — a place where there are more firearms than people and where gun violence has been the leading cause of death for children since 2020 — have plenty of issues with access to mental health, among other factors inciting violence like racism and misogyny. 

What they don’t have is the kind of access to guns that people in the U.S. have. 

As of 2017, Americans made up 4% of the world’s population but owned about 46% of the entire global stock of 857 million civilian firearms, according to the Small Arms Survey, a project from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.S. has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world — there are about 120.5 guns for every 100 people, which is about twice the number of the country with the second highest rate of gun ownership, Yemen.

“Look at Canada; they have not solved mental health,” said Chris Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and the board chairperson of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s that they don’t have the interplay of mental health and guns.”

Canada’s rate of firearm homicides is .5 per 100,000 people, compared to the United States’ rate of 4.12, according to a 2021 report from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. Following a 1989 shooting at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, where 14 engineering students were killed while in class, Canada enacted legislation that required safety courses, background checks and increased penalties for some gun crimes. 

And in 2020, after a gunman killed 13 people in Nova Scotia, Canada banned about 1,500 models of assault-style firearms.

Students and community members attend a candlelight vigil at Michigan State University on Feb. 15, 2023, following the mass shooting on campus earlier in the week. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

MSU was the United States’ 67th mass shooting of 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive. As of Sunday, there have been 88 mass shootings. A total of 6,578 people in the U.S. have died from gun violence in 2023. In 2022, there were 44,310 people who died from gun violence.

All of this, researchers and advocates stressed, is not to say that lawmakers should not focus on mental health — a universal health care system that includes access to mental health would be deeply beneficial to the U.S., Smith emphasized — but legislators should understand what they are achieving and why with their push for mental health. Mental health improvements, for example, would likely drive down gun suicide rates — which account for the majority (54%) of gun-related deaths in the country. 

There are also Democratic lawmakers who have advocated for mental health resources following shootings. Michigan Democrats, for example, have signed onto Republican-led legislation that would boost funding for mental health resources following both the Oxford and MSU shootings. 

But experts noted that while Democrats have done so, they have not solely focused on mental health in lieu of gun reform and have worked for stronger firearm regulations — something to which Republicans have been adamantly opposed.

“Mental illness does not drive gun violence,” said April Zeoli, an expert on gun violence who previously taught at Michigan State University and is now an associate professor of health management policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “People often look at shooters who commit these horrific acts and assume that they were not in their right mind because they committed these horrific acts and that is simply not based on evidence.”

It is this gun reform legislation from Democrats that will lead to fewer mass shootings, researchers said — something the United States previously saw when a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers passed legislation banning assault weapons in 1994. That legislation specified it would need to be renewed every 10 years — but, in 2004, lawmakers did not do so.

The decision to allow the ban to sunset has had significant consequences with regards to mass shootings in the U.S., researchers said. A 2019 study in Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found there was a 70% reduction in mass shootings during the 10-year ban.

In other words, researchers said, while there are many complex emotions, narratives and legislation around gun violence, the way to decrease it simply comes down to: Reduce the number of firearms in the country. The less access people have to guns, the less gun violence there will be.

“There are too many guns too easily acquired in too many hands,” Smith said.

It’s that gun violence is part of what’s causing our mental health crisis. Our students have to go to school every single day not knowing if they’re safe.

– Lauren Jasinski, a gun reform advocate who was a teacher at Oxford High School at the time of the 2021 mass shooting

What does not help drive down mass shootings is being laser-focused on anything other than gun reform, experts said.

“In terms of mass shootings, it’s not going to do anything,” Jeff Temple, a psychologist and director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said of mental health initiatives. 

Plus, continuing to link mental illness and gun violence further stigmatizes mental health and endangers people living with mental illness — a group that is less likely to commit violence against others than those without mental illness, researchers noted. 

Zeoli said when people with mental illness do commit violence, it’s far more likely it will be against themselves. 

“Linking mental illness and gun violence stigmatizes the community of people who have some kind of mental illness,” said Zeoli, who is also a faculty member of U of M’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

“There are people who have depression and who are responsible gun owners; if they felt like accessing [mental health] care would potentially expose them to being prohibited from having a gun or having a gun removed, they might not get care,” she added. “That is a real problem.”

Temple echoed this point.

“We’ve made quite a few strides in normalizing mental illness and mental health problems, and now we’re linking it to one of the scariest things we have going on in our country,” Temple said. “We’re saying if you have mental illness, then you’re dangerous. You’re more likely to shoot up a school, a business. Now we’re linking it to an extremely scary behavior, and people will go back into the closet with respect to mental health.”

Temple added that mental health advocacy should not exist as a replacement for gun reform and politicians should not use mental health as a “politically expedient” way to sidestep gun reform.

“If there’s a mass shooting, there’s this circular logic that if a person did that, they must be crazy,” Temple said. “They must be crazy because they did that. No sane person would do this. That’s the well-intentioned, understandable conclusion about mass shootings. 

“Then, quite frankly, it becomes politically expedient. Well-intentioned becomes, ‘You know what? We can blame mental illness and mental health because people like giving money to make people healthier and happier and at the same time we don’t piss off the gun advocates.’”

Second Amendment March at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

What are lawmakers proposing in Michigan?

In the days following the MSU shooting, Republican senators and House members released statements that largely focused on calling for prayers, increased mental health resources and school safety, and a lack of socially conservative values they see as contributing to violence.

“Our country has had firearms in the homes of Americans since its inception, but these cowardly acts of violence against unprotected students are a recurring issue in recent history,” Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) said in a Feb. 15 press release. “What has changed recently that has provoked this? Our nation has a mental health crisis, society has become Godless, the traditional family model has been abandoned, and increasing laws meant to protect us from gun violence have only backfired by leaving our children vulnerable.” 

As for what has changed, gun violence experts pointed to the 1994 assault weapon ban ending in 2004, as well as the financial and cultural power that the National Rifle Association (NRA) wields within the Republican Party — the party that for decades has resisted gun restrictions meant to curb violence — and a dramatic rise in firearm ownership. 

Gun sales have soared during the pandemic, with Americans purchasing some 21 million firearms in 2020, 18 million guns in 2021 and 16.4 million firearms in 2022. Mass shootings also increased during the pandemic. 

These factors, Smith said, have collided with a rise in anti-democratic politicians and media. Those on the far-right who have, for example, pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump and attempted to overthrow the federal government on Jan. 6, 2021.

“We’ve seen them encourage people to use and threaten violence if you lose an election, if you don’t like a vote that was taken,” Smith said. “That used to be an extremist minority…and now we’ve seen people attack the U.S. Capitol. Just unbelievable. They only want their way, and they’re willing to encourage violence to do it. People want to hang onto their guns because they think they may need them to overthrow the government.”

Other Michigan GOP lawmakers released statements similar to Carra’s following the MSU shooting. Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) said, for example, that root causes of violence included “the devaluing of human life at every stage that has occurred over the last century” and a “general breakdown of morality and faith throughout our culture.”

Amid sorrowful proclamations about American culture — statements that follow a trend for Republicans who nationwide have blamed gun violence on everything from critical race theory to marijuana and single parentsMinority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) announced the day after the MSU shooting that Republican lawmakers introduced a package of legislation focusing on mental health and school safety. House Bills 40884100 include recommendations from a task force formed after the Oxford shooting in November 2021. 

The legislation does not address gun reform.

The GOP-led bills would:

  • Establish the School Safety and Mental Health Commission, which would identify best practices for schools to address mental health needs among students and support at-risk students
  • Provide funding for intermediate schools to hire a safety and security coordinator and a mental health coordinator; require schools to review and update their safety plans every three years
  • Expand OK2SAY, a confidential tip line for students and school staff to report concerns
  • Require the Michigan State Police to provide school safety and security training for school resource officers and staff at all Michigan schools

Again, while those studying gun violence said they welcome efforts to improve mental health and school safety, they said the most significant driver behind mass shootings is access to firearms. 

This continued connection that GOP lawmakers are making between mental health and mass shootings is leaving the general public with the impression that they do not want to associate with anyone living with a mental illness — something one in five Americans will experience in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Barnhorst said.

“People with mental illness are just trying to live as normal a life as possible and get care,” Barnhorst said, adding that a focus on mental health is “a real red herring in terms of what the actual problem is.”

Perpetrators of gun violence are overwhelmingly not driven by mental illness but rather by factors like “racist, white supremacist views; they’re anti-Black or anti-Jewish,” Barnhorst said. “To say, ‘Oh this is mental illness’ is not looking at the United States’ larger problem with hate crimes and terrorist acts.” 

A gunman and avowed white supremacist, for example, in May 2022 shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y..

Lauren Jasinski, a gun reform advocate who was a teacher at Oxford High School at the time of the 2021 mass shooting, said that curbing violence would also likely translate to a decrease in mental health concerns across the country.

“It’s that gun violence is part of what’s causing our mental health crisis,” Jasinski said. “Our students have to go to school every single day not knowing if they’re safe.”

Two days after Hall announced the GOP lawmakers’ package last Tuesday, Democratic senators introduced a series of gun reform bills similar to legislation they’ve previously tried to pass.

The Democratic bills would:

  • Senate Bills 7678 would mandate universal background checks for all guns (currently, only the purchase of handguns requires a background check in Michigan). 
  • Senate Bills 7982 would require gun owners to safely store firearms that could be accessed by minors. 
  • Senate Bills 8386 would permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.These orders are known as extreme risk protection orders, which are often colloquially referred to as red flag laws.

Last week, House Democrats announced they are introducing bills mirroring those in the Senate. Those bills were turned in on Tuesday but have yet to be given bill numbers and assigned to committee because legislative sessions were canceled this week due to a winter storm. Amber McCann, the press secretary for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) said that process will take place next week.

For years, Michigan Democrats have introduced similar gun reform legislation that has languished in committee, never receiving hearings or votes from Republican leaders unwilling to take up the issue. 

Now that they’re in charge of the Legislature for the first time in almost 40 years, they’ve vowed to take action.

“Gun violence has touched the lives of countless Americans. I personally have family members who have been the victims of gun violence and the impact of that violence reverberates for a lifetime,” Tate said in a press release announcing the bills. “As elected leaders, it is our responsibility to do what we can to help keep our kids and our communities safe, and that means taking action on common-sense gun reforms. This is not a political issue; it is a public health emergency.”

The legislation would, if passed, likely be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who pushed for gun reform in her State of the State address in January. Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist released a statement on Tuesday applauding Democratic lawmakers’ efforts to curb gun violence. 

“The time for only thoughts and prayers is over,” Whitmer said. “As the Spartan community and Michiganders across the state heal after the horrific campus shooting last week, I am grateful to my partners in the legislature for turning pain into purpose and introducing commonsense gun safety legislation to enact universal background checks, safe storage laws, and extreme risk protection orders.  

“Addressing gun violence is a top public safety priority,” the governor continued. “No student should have to look over their shoulder when they’re walking on campus. No family should have to worry about making it home after a trip to the grocery store or church. No Michigander should live in fear.”

Zeoli said Michigan’s newfound political alignment has given her hope that gun reform will finally become a reality. 

“I’ve been encouraged since the State of the State, when Gov. Whitmer was calling for gun safety legislation,” Zeoli said. “The shooting at Michigan State University is horrific. The shooting at Oxford is horrific. The everyday gun violence that happens is horrific. For the first time in many years it looks like we have a chance to bring the evidence about firearm safety legislation forward, hear the evidence and vote based on the evidence.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist attend a candlelight vigil at Michigan State University on Feb. 15, 2023, following the mass shooting on campus earlier in the week. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Some limited Republican lawmaker support for gun reform

So far, no Republican lawmaker has issued a public statement in support of the Democratic bills, although Democratic lawmakers said they are hoping they will receive some GOP support for reforms that have widespread support across the political spectrum.

In a Detroit Free Press survey published Feb. 19, the publication asked all 148 state legislators if they supported the concept of universal background check laws, safe storage laws and red flag laws. While many Republicans did not respond to the survey or said they were opposed to the measures, a minority of GOP lawmakers indicated they’re open to the reforms. 

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said he might support all three bills, Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) reported supporting safe storage laws and universal background checks and said she might be in favor of red flag laws, and Sen. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway) said he might support red flag and safe storage laws but said he did not agree with universal background checks. Sen. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) said he might support red flag and safe storage laws and agrees with universal background checks. Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville) gave a “maybe” to supporting all three, and Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said he might support red flag and safe storage laws but does not agree with universal background checks.

Meanwhile, in the House, three Republicans responded somewhat favorably to the proposed bills. Rep. William Bruck (R-Erie) said “maybe” to supporting red flag laws and universal background checks. He said he does not back safe storage laws. Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Port Huron) reported he might be in favor of safe storage laws but does not agree with safe storage laws or universal background checks. Rep. Gregory Alexander (R-Carsonville) said he might support universal background checks, red flag laws and safe storage.

Hall and Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Twp.), did not return several requests for comment for this story.

We’ve seen them encourage people to use and threaten violence if you lose an election, if you don’t like a vote that was taken. That used to be an extremist minority… and now we’ve seen people attack the U.S. Capitol. Just unbelievable. They only want their way, and they’re willing to encourage violence to do it. People want to hang onto their guns because they think they may need them to overthrow the government.

– Chris Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and the board chairperson of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence

One roadblock to Republicans voting for legislation could be threats from far-right activists to challenge them in the 2024 GOP primary — even those in swing seats where gun reform is popular with the general electorate. 

Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton), who attended a Wednesday meeting on red flag laws at the White House, said in an interview Thursday that he hopes Republicans can be persuaded to support the majority’s gun reform legislation. He noted that conservative states like Florida and Indiana have passed red flag laws — and Republican lawmakers in those states have continued to be elected.

“These conversations about common-sense gun reform with the goal of making our communities and schools safer should transcend party lines and the current political divide that exists,” Puri said. 

Puri noted that “gun reform was excluded from the task force” that was bipartisan but Republican-led following the Oxford shooting. Puri was a member of the task force.

The School Safety Task Force in December released its final report, which includes no recommendations for gun reform but focuses on increasing mental health resources in schools and added safety measures at schools, like door barricades during emergencies.

“Regardless of political beliefs, everyone wants our communities and our schools to be safe,” Puri said.

“When those conversations break down is when you allow misinformation campaigns, like quickly pivoting to mental health issues” or distorting the Second Amendment, Puri added. 

“Those conversations are riddled with misinformation that’s very intentional.”

National polls routinely show 80% to 90% of the general public, including the overwhelming majority of gun owners, want expanded background checks. 

A statewide survey conducted late last year by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group reported that 90% of the 600 participants would support requiring background checks for gun purchases. In the same survey, 74% reported backing the so-called “red flag” laws, which permit a court to remove guns from individuals deemed as a threat to themselves or others.

Researchers said that while there are deep divisions among lawmakers around guns, the American public often has a far more nuanced approach to gun reforms than their representatives — many of whom have been able to hold extremist political views, including around guns, and win elections due to gerrymandering

There are, experts said, plenty of responsible gun owners who want change. After all, experts said, no one wants children to continue to be murdered en masse — even though they emphasized that is what’s happening because of a lack of reform.

Legislators listen to students from Michigan State University and surrounding communities share their experiences during a protest for stricter gun laws at the Michigan Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023, following a mass shooting on campus earlier in the week. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

“People’s guns are a very emotional topic for a lot of folks,” Barnhorst said. “It’s alienating to say all guns are bad because people who own guns and feel they’re a big part of family and identity and security, they bristle at that. I think the conversation needs to change a little bit so it’s around not all guns are bad but access to guns by people who are at high risk are bad. That’s why I like red flag laws. They don’t target all guns. They target high-risk people. Research around them for suicide prevention show they’re incredibly effective.”

As the majority of Michiganders back the Democratic-led reforms, gun rights activists have already begun targeting politicians who support reducing gun violence through legislation — before any hearings or votes have taken place.

Great Lakes Gun Rights, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit group, issued a press release on Monday saying it “promised to work with local political activists and begin recalling anti-gun politicians who vote for gun control legislation being pushing [sic] through the Michigan legislature.”

“Michigan Democrats are charging ahead with anti-gun proposals that would make California blush,” Brenden Boudreau, Great Lakes Gun Rights executive director, said in the press release. 

If lawmakers do not drop their legislation, Boudreau threatened that his group will “work with local activists and voters in districts across the state to recall any lawmaker who votes for these gun control bills.”

However, last decade when Republicans had unified control over state government, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law making it much tougher to recall lawmakers. Recall language cannot be submitted, for instance, during the first or last six months of an officeholder’s term.

Several Democratic lawmakers have responded that they will not be deterred by the right-wing group’s tactics.

“It’s astonishing how the other side *still* doesn’t want to take action on this issue,” Puri tweeted. “Common sense gun reform legislation has wide bi-partisan support by Michiganders all over the state and has proven to be effective in dozens of states. But alas, keep doing you, GOP.”

For the first time in many years, it looks like we have a chance to bring the evidence about firearm safety legislation forward, hear the evidence and vote based on the evidence.

– April Zeoli, an expert on gun violence and an associate professor of health management policy at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health

‘We need national gun reform, but we’re not going to get it’

Following the shooting at MSU, President Joe Biden again called for gun control, such as a nationwide ban on assault-style weapons. 

“We have to do something to stop gun violence from ripping apart our communities,” Biden told attendees at the National Association of Counties conference on Feb. 14.

There was some movement around national gun reform following the May 2022 mass shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. In June, 15 Republican senators and 14 GOP House members, including then-U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), joined Democrats and voted for the most comprehensive federal gun reform legislation in 30 years. 

Biden signed the gun bill into law on June 25. It provides $750 million for states to enact red flag laws, expands the background check systems for prospective gun buyers under the age of 21, and provides $11 billion in mental health services for schools and families.

But neither Upton nor Meijer are still in office. Upton chose to retire last term and Meijer lost his primary to John Gibbs, who earned Trump’s endorsement. Grand Rapids Democrat Hillary Scholten defeated Gibbs in November.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) dons a face mask with the word “DIGNITY” printed on it before a news conference about immigration outside the U.S. Capitol on March 17, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Following the MSU shooting, many Michigan congressional members made statements, with U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) saying about gun reform at a Feb. 14 MSU police press conference, “If this is not a wake up call to do something, I don’t know what is.”

“Once again, gun violence has touched a Michigan community,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said in a Feb. 14 statement. “I am grieving for my fellow Spartans today – for the lives lost, the injured, and all of the students, parents, MSU employees, and local residents who will be living with fear for a long time to come. I am grateful too for the first responders who put their own lives on the line to keep people safe.

“Spartans are strong and resilient — I know that the university and community will come together and get through this. I’m so incredibly sad and angry that they have to.”

Some Republicans joined Democrats in making statements, but none called for gun reform.

Reps. Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Twp.), John James (R-Farmington Hills) and John Moolenaar (R-Midland) issued statements responding to the Michigan State shooting.

“Last night was heartbreaking for the Michigan State community across the state and around the world,” Moolenaar said in a statement released Feb. 14. The incredible response by students and law enforcement helped keep people safe from the criminal who committed heinous acts of violence against innocent people.”

As for the other GOP members of the Michigan delegation, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) tweeted a link to a Feb. 14 interview he gave on Fox News about the shooting. Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) provided no statements on social media or their official websites.

While Smith said the country is in dire need of federal gun reform, it’s unlikely to happen.

“We need national gun reform, but we’re not going to get it,” he said. “It ought to be clear to many people that the United States structurally is a flawed democracy that lets political minorities block and control public policy.”

We need national gun reform, but we’re not going to get it. It ought to be clear to many people that the United States structurally is a flawed democracy that lets political minorities block and control public policy.

– Chris Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and the board chairperson of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence

The Senate filibuster leads to an “ability to block national legislation,” Smith said. He added that the electoral college has allowed for a current right-wing Supreme Court to have five justices appointed by two Republican presidents who did not win the popular vote [George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016], which provides further barriers to gun reform. 

“The actual opportunity to do more comes in the states, in those states with a political culture where there are not ideologues on the 2nd Amendment and in those states that have pushed aside gerrymandering,” Smith said.

“This is a really difficult time in terms of our structure and operation of government to think about what can get done,” Smith continued. “But in Michigan we now have the opportunity because of the governor being aligned with both houses of the Legislature that something will actually be enacted. The question is what will that be?”

As for what will pass, Smith said he expects the legislation Michigan Democrats recently introduced to be signed into law by Whitmer. 

“I think those are necessary and beneficial, but entirely insufficient and this is a moment to aspire for more,” Smith said of the proposed legislation.

State legislators 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, Smith said and expanded upon in an essay published on the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence’s website.

“It would be very beneficial to have a waiting period so someone who’s in a momentary rage in a domestic violence situation has a tougher time acquiring that [a firearm] while they’re in that range,” Smith said.

The MSU professor encouraged lawmakers to “be bold.”

“There’s a tendency for people in politics to do something modest, claim they’ve done something and be cautious about doing something bolder that might have even more beneficial impacts because they know there’s opposition out there and they know they only have narrow majorities,” Smith said. “Lives are at stake. Be bold.

“Oxford sent a message that suburbanites in Republican areas can wake up to this,” he continued. “MSU is an even bigger message. There are families from all over the state, from all levels of society, who have their kids at MSU.”

A sign outside Oxford High School. | Anna Gustafson

‘The media will go away, the dogs will go away’

While researchers explained tying mental illness to mass shootings is problematic, survivors stressed it’s crucial that mental health resources are provided — especially to the students, families and communities navigating lifetimes of trauma from gun violence.

“I’m really tired and frustrated about the conversation being an ‘either-or’ thing; that’s really been fabricated to fit inside of partisan politics,” Jasinski said with regards to mental health and gun reform. “It’s not something advocates have created. There’s not a single one of us saying, ‘Oh, things are great except for gun policy.’ Things are really challenging in schools right now; they have been for years. Schools are dealing with all sorts of unmet needs because of COVID. We’re desperate for mental health resources.

“We have a mental health crisis, but we also have a gun violence crisis,” she continued. 

As for the road ahead for those affected by the MSU shooting, Jasinski knows it’s a long one. This forever changes people’s lives, and the trauma that many people are now facing will forever be a part of them. That, she said, is yet another reason to have both gun reform and funding for mental health resources.

“We know the road ahead for these families, communities and students,” Jasinski said of those affected by the MSU shooting. “The media will go away; the [support] dogs will go away; the support and notes will go away. Everyone else has the choice to return to their normal lives, and now nobody on campus does.”

Students at Michigan State University pet corgis brought to campus by the Michigan Corgi Club on Feb. 19, 2023, to provide students emotional support days after a mass shooting on campus. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

As MSU students, professors, families and other survivors begin to navigate their lives in the wake of trauma, Jasinski had some words of advice.

“Find a good therapist, and I hope that Michigan State does their part in helping students with mental health care,” she said. “Find a community of people that are dealing with this in a similar way. There are so many different reactions to trauma, and if turning to your religion is what feels right for you, then I want people to do that. If advocacy is what feels right to you, then I want you to do that.”

Thousands of MSU students have turned to advocacy, including those who have filled the state Capitol grounds following the MSU shooting to call for gun reform.

The voices that need to join them, Jasinski said, are gun owners who support change.

“There are plenty of law-abiding gun owners who do not want children killed at school,” she said. “I would ask for those people to become more vocal, too. This is seen as a progressive issue, and we need as many responsible gun owners and moderate and conservative people who are sick of this violence to speak out.”

Should the Michigan Democrats’ legislation be passed, it would make gun violence survivors feel heard — something, Jasinski said, they repeatedly do not in the wake of mass shooting after mass shooting.

“I was a civics teacher; I understand how politics works; I understand what held these bills back in the past,” Jasinski said. “I’m glad and proud they’re introduced and getting some movement.”

There’s not a single one of us saying, ‘Oh, things are great except for gun policy.’ Things are really challenging in schools right now; they have been for years. Schools are dealing with all sorts of unmet needs because of COVID. We’re desperate for mental health resources.

– Lauren Jasinski, a gun reform advocate who was a teacher at Oxford High School at the time of the 2021 mass shooting

Still, she said, “There’s a lot of sadness and grief for the Oxford community because I think it’s impossible to wonder why our tragedy wasn’t enough for people, why Hana, Justin, Madisyn, and Tate weren’t enough. Why our grief didn’t move people.”

Jasinski was referring to the students who died in the Oxford High School shooting: Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17. 

“We want to celebrate and commend what our lawmakers have done,” Jasinski said. “But there’s definitely an additional layer of grief there. I have to look at my Oxford students, and I can’t explain why there wasn’t the same reaction when we lost our friends.”

As for her, Jasinski said the lack of action from lawmakers following the shooting at Oxford left her wading through deep despair.

“I’ve been a civics teacher for 10 years, and my job is to tell people the government’s responsibility is to protect its citizens,” she said. “It’s almost a crisis of faith … not being sure I believe that any more. What has happened to show us any differently?”





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