Susan J. Demas: Cynicism didn’t win after the MSU shooting


After a tragedy shakes a community like the Michigan State University mass shooting did a year ago, grief seems to hang over everything, like a fog.

It took a long while — far longer than I expected — to feel like myself again after the night of Feb. 13, 2023.

I found myself replaying the events of that night in my head nearly every day, creeping into my thoughts with no real rhyme or reason. Oddly, it never was when I was editing stories about gun violence, which happens all too regularly, but during much more mundane times, like when I was going over my daily schedule, hiking through the forest or making dinner.

Susan J. Demas: What we owe our children after the horror at MSU

But without warning, I would be transported to 8:08 p.m., when I was late to pick up my daughter from MSU’s campus, listening to her chatter about classes that day. Then it was 8:12 p.m. as we drove past Berkey Hall, oblivious to the horror that was about to unfold inside. And then 8:37 p.m. hit, when the university’s active shooter alert came through with the ominous order to “Run, Hide, Fight.”

After that, the memories blur of hugging my daughter while messages from her friends, news reports and social media hoaxes poured in for the next several hours.

Now with hindsight, I know that Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner were never able to come home again after that night and five other students who were critically injured, including one of my daughter’s friends, will never be the same. 

All of that swirls as part of my recollection of Feb. 13, 2023, along with so many unanswered questions: Why them? Why did it happen? Why does this happen in America nearly every day?

For many of us, the intensely personal feelings of trauma, loss, depression and anxiety are inevitably mixed in with fear and hopelessness about gun violence and other big societal problems that too many of our leaders avoid trying to solve.

After all, we know that the MSU killings were the 67th mass shooting in the U.S. of that year. By the time 2023 came to a close, that number jumped to 656

How do we even begin to comprehend something so horrible, such needless suffering?

It’s nearly impossible.

At this point, we’re used to politicians firing off cut-and-paste tweets sending “thoughts and prayers” followed by solemnly insisting that nothing can be done to stop “evil.” The particularly ghoulish ones routinely post photos of their families posing with assault weapons.

After the Feb. 13 school shooting, thousands of MSU students mobilized for stronger gun laws in Michigan. They gathered at the state Capitol that week and kept coming back, refusing to let lawmakers forget about them, their anger, their pain and the future they deserved.

It had only been a little over a year since the mass shooting at Oxford High School where Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Julianna and Justin Shilling lost their lives. And the Legislature had done almost nothing.  


So many MSU students had an understandable skepticism of all politicians, regardless of party. They didn’t want political posturing and had no patience for lawmakers eager to take the microphone at student-led rallies and somehow make the event all about them. 

To make that point, organizers asked lawmakers at a demonstration just two days after the shooting to stand directly before the grieving students on the steps.

“Before you act like you understand us, please take a moment to sit with us, and to listen to us and to be with us because you won’t be us, you haven’t been us and hopefully soon, you’ll never be us,” said Maya Manuel, an MSU student who organized the event.

But things were different in Michigan this time. Within a few weeks, the Legislature passed significant gun safety bills, which Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promptly signed

The first reforms were universal background checks for all gun sales in Michigan, requirements for safe storage of firearms and ammunition that could be accessed by minors, and permit a court to use “extreme risk protection orders,” also known as “red flag” laws, to temporarily remove firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others. A few months later, Whitmer signed bills beefing up laws that aim to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

The new laws go into effect on Tuesday, exactly one year after the shooting.

I’d like to say that these vital changes happened because the vast majority of legislators decided enough was enough and the bills had overwhelming support. But the legislation narrowly passed the Legislature last year — amid recall threats from pro-gun groups — with almost all Republicans standing in opposition. (And they even blocked the bills from going into effect right away).

You remember the people who called, just like you never forget those who didn’t, but always expect something from you anyway. Too often, that’s how voters feel about politicians when it comes to gun control.

The difference in action between the Oxford and MSU school shootings was simple: Republicans were in charge of the Legislature during the former and Democrats were during the latter.

Making sure our children — and everyone — is safe shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But sadly, it often is now. 

As the Legislature was debating gun legislation last year, the Michigan Republican Party posted a revolting meme on social media using a picture from the U.S. National Archives of wedding rings removed by Germans from Holocaust victims with text that read: “Before they collected all these wedding rings … They collected all the guns.” MIGOP Chair Kristina Karamo held a press conference defending the post.

“We’re a different Republican Party,” Karamo declared. “We are not the Republican Party who apologizes and runs away from our positions. It’s the reason why the Republican Party has gotten kicked in the teeth the last three cycles, because it’s been a party that’s always apologizing. We’re done.”

Just this weekend, former President Donald Trump, the 2024 GOP frontrunner, promised the National Rifle Association (NRA) that when he’s “back in the Oval Office, no one will lay a finger on your firearms. Not gonna happen.” That came after Trump chillingly told supporters after an Iowa school shooting that we “have to get over it.”

We know we can’t let these appalling attacks deter us; so much more needs to be done. 

Messages of support and encouragement for students at Michigan State University line bridges to the MSU Library and Wells Hall on March 2, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Michigan isn’t an island and neighboring states like Indiana and Ohio have far looser gun laws. Without key reforms at the federal level like bringing back the assault rifle ban, which President Joe Biden strongly supports, we know there will be many avoidable tragedies in the future. 

And so as I grapple with this nightmarish anniversary today, I’m relieved that cynicism, ugliness and apathy didn’t derail good public policy in our state. I’m so grateful for those in the MSU community and beyond who reached out to my family last year so we knew we weren’t alone.

You remember the people who called, just like you never forget those who didn’t, but always expect something from you anyway. Too often, that’s how voters feel about politicians when it comes to gun control. 

There’s another way. And hopefully, Michigan can serve as a light in the darkness.

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