Gun Violence Survivors Optimistic About Reforms Under Democratic Leadership in Michigan

People attending a vigil for the victims of a school shooting embrace at LakePoint Community Church in Oxford, Mich., Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By Michigan Advance

February 6, 2023

BY ANNA GUSTAFSON, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Sixteen-and-a-half years after her brother, Ben, died by gun suicide, Mary Miller attended Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address. 

As she heard the governor call for gun reform—“the time for only thoughts and prayers is over,” Whitmer said during the Jan. 25 speech—she thought of her older brother, a charismatic Air Force veteran who “knew how to be a friend to everyone” and who never stopped cheering on his younger sister as they grew up together in Charlotte, a small city about 20 miles southwest of Lansing.

“He was the person who I wanted to be the most,” Miller said. “I wanted to be just like him.”

After serving for four years in the US Air Force, Ben was honorably discharged. When he returned home, he “struggled quite a bit,” his sister said.

“One day, he had let my parents know he was in crisis, and I happened to be visiting that weekend,” said Miller, who now lives in Berkley, a northern suburb of Detroit. “My dad and I, not knowing what to do but feeling like we’re members of this small community and can ask for help, went to all the gun stores in my small town.” 

At each of the stores, they showed a photo of their son and brother.

“We asked every shop owner and clerk working that day—we said, ‘If this person comes in and wants to buy a firearm, please call us; don’t sell him a gun right away,’” Miller said. “It was terrible because, in each store, person after person said, ‘There’s no reason we shouldn’t sell him a gun.’”

That day, Ben did come home, and went on to connect with the Veterans Affairs facility in Battle Creek and pursued therapy.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t take and he died a few months later,” Miller said.

On July 2, 2006, when he was one month shy of turning 27 years old, Ben’s life ended.

“That kind of trauma never goes away,” Miller said of her brother’s suicide. “I’ve seen the toll it took on my parents, specifically my dad, and then just how it has informed my social work career because unfortunately I’ve been able to see how trauma will literally change your brain.

“This moment of despair doesn’t ruin just one life; it sends a ripple effect through a family, through a community,” Miller said.

And so, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, amidst a sea of lawmakers congregating inside the Capitol for the governor’s address, Miller thought of her big brother—who would be 43 years old now. She thought of how much she loved him, how he had filled her life with a sense of hope that people could be truly good — that they could endlessly pour themselves into helping others, as her brother had.

As Whitmer called on the Legislature—now controlled by Democrats for the first time in nearly 40 years—to pass extreme risk protection order (ERPO) legislation, also known as “red flag” laws; universal background checks; and safe storage laws, Miller felt a deep sense of hope that things could change. 

We asked every shop owner and clerk working that day—we said, ‘If this person comes in and wants to buy a firearm, please call us; don’t sell him a gun right away.’ It was terrible because, in each store, person after person said, ‘There’s no reason we shouldn’t sell him a gun.’

– Mary Miller, whose brother died by gun suicide

That a red flag law—which 19 states have enacted and which permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others—would mean others may not have to know the pain her family has.

“If Michigan had a red flag law in 2006, it is very possible my brother would be alive today,” she said.

“The governor talking about [red flag laws], that speaks to me and fills me with so much hope,” added Miller, who volunteers with Moms Demand Action, a gun reform advocacy group, and works with youth who have attempted suicide, among other children, at a community mental health agency called The Guidance Center in Wayne County. “If Indiana can pass a red flag law, Michigan should be able to pass a red flag law.”

‘Every day we don’t do this, more people die.’

For years, Michigan Democrats have introduced gun reform legislation that has languished in committee, never receiving hearings nor votes from Republican leaders unwilling to take up the issue.

“After Oxford, I would give a speech about [gun violence] every day” on the Senate floor, state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) said of the 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School in which a 15-year-old murdered four of his peers. “Oxford was my town—I lived down the street from the school for a long time, and I had family members in the school that day. It’s very personal for me.

“I kept trying to remind people how close this is to them, how this happens all the time now,” said Bayer, whose district includes Oxford and who chairs the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus. “Every day we don’t do this [pass gun reform], more people die. We are responsible.”

Republican lawmakers’ repeated refusal to act on gun reform legislation introduced by Democrats comes despite the fact that national polls routinely show 80% to 90% of the general public, including the overwhelming majority of gun owners, back expanded background checks.

Republican leaders in the Michigan House and Senate see a different reality from the one reported in the polls.

“I think the policies Gov. Whitmer is championing are divisive,” House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) told reporters following the State of the State. “So let’s not start out by dividing people.”

During the same meeting with reporters following the State of the State, Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) said the state should instead focus on a sales tax exemption for gun safety equipment, including gun cabinets and trigger locks.

Democratic lawmakers and other advocates strongly disagreed with Hall’s statement.

“It is not divisive when polling shows that the vast majority of Michiganders support and are calling for action the measures the governor called for in her speech,” Bayer said.

House Minority Leader Matt Hall, left, and Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, right, speak to reporters following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fifth State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Bates also emphasized the majority of Michiganders backing gun reform in polls.

“Common sense gun violence laws are supported by the overwhelming majority of Michiganders,” Bates said.

“What’s divisive is ignoring the will of the voters and refusing to act on this issue to such an extent that guns are now the number one cause of death for children,” he continued.

In a country where gun violence is the leading cause of death for children, mass shootings have become increasingly frequent (there have been 54 mass shootings in 2023 alone), gun-related suicides have risen, and there are more firearms than people—gun owners possess some 393.3 million weapons in a nation of about 330 million people—the percentage of Americans who favor stricter gun laws has hovered between about 57% and 67% over the past five years, according to Gallup polls.

In other words: while Democrats are more likely to favor gun reform, there are plenty of Republicans who do, as well. And while Republican lawmakers in Michigan have not had to go on record as to where they stand on gun reform—because there had been no votes taken on it under GOP leadership of the state House and Senate—that is set to change when Democrats reintroduce gun reform legislation, Bayer said.

“It’s going to be interesting now to look across the aisle and wonder how they’re going to vote,” Bayer said. “For the first time ever they’re going to have the opportunity to speak their own minds. If they had real core values, they could have stood up and said something but they could never bring it to a vote without their leader doing that—and [former Republican Majority Leader Mike] Shirkey was not going to do that. Now they’re going to have to take a position, and not voting is taking a position. Their people want this; we know from polling.”

Michigan Democrats are planning to soon reintroduce legislation that would mandate universal background checks for anyone who wants to purchase a firearm in Michigan, Bayer said. Democrats also expect to reintroduce a safe storage package of legislation, which would  require gun owners to store firearms that could be accessed by minors in a secure location. The red flag legislation will also be reintroduced, but that will likely be after the other two packages of gun reform legislation due to it being more legally complicated, Bayer said.

Before they introduce the bills, Bayer said Democratic lawmakers have been getting a wide range of input from national gun reform groups, such as the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown, state Attorney General Dana Nessel, state police and prosecutors, among others. 

“We want to make sure they’re good and sturdy enough to withstand the inevitable lawsuits that will happen,” Bayer said.

As the country grapples with another wave of mass shootings, leaving Americans more anxious, depressed and fearful of going into public, Democratic lawmakers and gun reform advocates said they hope there will be increased bipartisan support for gun reform. While a couple of Michigan Republican lawmakers in the past have co-sponsored state legislation around barring people convicted of domestic violence from accessing guns, GOP leadership has long been resistant to holding hearings on gun violence bills, let alone passing them.

But, Bayer said that may be changing. Some Republican lawmakers, she said, expressed interest in attending the gun violence caucus—something that has not happened in years past. No Republican ended up attending the caucus’ first meeting, but Bayer said she’s hopeful their initial interest is indicative of potential support around gun reform from some GOP legislators.

“This was the No. 2 thing we hear at the doors—and we knock on everyone’s doors, Democrats and Republicans; the first was abortion, and the second was guns,” Bayer said.

Provided lawmakers pass the gun violence bills, Whitmer is expected to sign the legislation she championed during her State of the State. During her address, she noted that Oxford families implored lawmakers to act following the shooting that killed Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; and Justin Shilling, 17.

“Despite pleas from Oxford families, these issues never even got a hearing in the legislature,” Whitmer said. “This year, let’s change that and work together to stop the violence and save lives.”

As Bayer emphasized, Whitmer noted that the impending gun reform is in no way meant to take firearms from responsible gun owners.

“I want to be very clear—I’m not talking about law-abiding citizens,” Whitmer said during her State of the State. “Hunters and responsible gun owners from both sides of the aisle know that we need to get these common sense gun safety proposals across the finish line.”

The initials of the four students who were murdered at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021 are painted on a rock outside the school. The students who were killed were Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, and Justin Shilling. (Anna Gustafson/Michigan Advance)

‘I had no clue how bad government inaction failed us’

In the year that has passed since the mass shooting at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021, both current and former Oxford High School students have formed a group, No Future Without Today, to advocate for gun reform legislation. 

The executive director of that group, Oxford High School senior Dylan Morris, attended the State of the State as Bayer’s guest. Like other youth who have gotten involved in politics because of gun violence — such as David Hogg, who survived a 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), a Gen Z lawmaker and longtime gun reform advocate who was a March for Our Lives organizer—Morris has found purpose in pushing for change.

“This generation is going to make changes,” Morris said. “We’re going to be the driving force in this country, we’re going to make sure people are getting the help they need, and we’re going to make sure the government is held accountable. Young people want to get involved; they want to be engaged.”

For Morris, who had been interested in politics prior to the shooting and who hopes to run for elected office someday, the violence at his high school “galvanized my resolve to advocate for common sense gun reforms.” Morris and other members of his group have called for safe storage and red flag legislation, universal background checks, and restrictions on the ability of domestic abusers to own guns.

“When it happened at my school, I had no idea how weak our gun laws were in the state of Michigan,” Morris said of the mass shooting. “I had no clue how bad government inaction failed us.”

‘That’s how insane our country has become’

Ryan Bates, an organizer with End Gun Violence Michigan, said the fact that there is a seemingly endless stream of students across the country who have now survived mass shootings is leaving American youth with a sense of solidarity—and outrage that gun violence has so often been met with legislative silence.

“These young people have had their childhoods stolen from them,” Bates said of the Oxford High School shooting survivors. “It’s not just that they lost their friends, which is bad enough; they had any hope of having a normal high school experience snatched away from them. It’s something they have to live with every day for the rest of their lives.”

With the overwhelming majority of K-12 schools—some 95%—holding regular active shooter drills, as well as the mass shootings themselves, students, families and communities have been left with a deep sense of fear. 

School shootings are “like a terrorist attack—the randomness of it and unpredictability of it creates all sorts of” mental and physical health issues, including stress—which can then lead to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, explained Marc Zimmerman, the co-director of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention and a professor of public health and psychology at the University of Michigan.

Children who are exposed to violence are “more psychologically stressed;” there’s more anxiety and depression among them, Zimmerman said. Youth who are exposed to violence are less likely to be engaged in school and are more likely to abuse substances, he added. 

Heather Littleton, an associate professor of psychology at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who specializes in recovery from trauma, studied students’ mental health following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University. She found that the students involved in the study “reported very high rates of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] after the shooting.” 

In the months that followed the shooting, the rates of PTSD did not “decline very much” and even rose around the one-year anniversary, Littleton said. 

Both Zimmerman and Littleton noted that it’s not solely those directly involved in a mass shooting who are left struggling with mental health issues.

“The thing we don’t pay a lot of attention to is what about everyone else around that situation—kids from another school or family members,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Yeah, I’m concerned about sending my kid to school. What stress does that create for the parents? It’s not just the kids in the school but the community around it.”

Survivors of the Oxford High School shooting and other gun violence led a press conference in Oxford, Michigan on Jan. 18, 2023. The advocates called on state lawmakers to pass gun reform legislation in Michigan. (Anna Gustafson/Michigan Advance)

For years, it has been extremely stressful—if not downright traumatizing—to attend school because of the explosion of gun violence across the country, Bates said.

“People do not understand what it’s like to go to school now,” Bates said. “It’s not just people surviving shootings who are traumatized. It’s everyone. They’re doing active shooter drills twice a year. My 6-year-old does them. You can’t run away because most of these classrooms don’t have access to the outside. The windows don’t open. 

“So the response to a mass shooter is they lock everything down. They teach the kids to sit in the dark under their desks and practice being as quiet as possible. They can’t run anywhere, so they’re just sitting there waiting to die, hoping the police get there before the mass shooter gets to their classroom.”

That, Morris said, is exactly what happened to him. He and a group of other students were hiding in a classroom during the shooting at Oxford—where they had armed themselves with “scissors, a tape dispenser, and a hockey stick that was in the closet.”

“We all had our eyes fixed on the doorknob, waiting for someone to retrieve us or to see if we were going to have to defend ourselves,” Morris said during a Jan. 18 press conference held in Oxford.

“It’s bad enough that they have to live with that horrible memory,” Bates said of the Oxford shooting. “Every day across this country, millions of children imagine it happening to them. That’s how insane our country has become.”

Still, faced with depression, PTSD and anxiety, students are seeking one another out to create change. Yes, they are depressed and anxious, but they are also angry and determined. And they will not be deterred—not by the National Rifle Association, which has poured money and influence into fighting gun reform; not by politicians; not, they said, by anyone.

“There’s a lot of frustration among young people—and fear,” Morris said. “We’ve seen so many people impacted. Even those that weren’t shot or killed are still reeling from the mental turmoil that comes with the shooting—PTSD, things of that nature.”

They teach the kids to sit in the dark under their desks and practice being as quiet as possible. They can’t run anywhere, so they’re just sitting there waiting to die, hoping the police get there before the mass shooter gets to their classroom.

– Ryan Bates, an organizer with End Gun Violence Michigan

For Morris, he has been able to cope with the aftermath of the shooting by “turning my frustration to advocacy.”

Miller, whose brother died by suicide, said the same.

“What has helped me is turning my grief into action and supporting candidates who believe in helping our communities,” she said.

This turn to action makes sense—and can be emotionally healthy, Zimmerman and Littleton said.

“We know having some sense of control is good for your mental health,” Zimmerman said. “If you feel helpless, if you feel like you can’t do anything, you feel more distressed, more depressed, more anxious.”

In addition to gun violence victims working together to advocate for change being empowering, Littleton said it’s crucial to provide people experiencing trauma with mental health supports long after the shooting.

“After these events, there’s this very positive social support that’s going on—this increase in community solidarity; everyone’s joined together and feels very connected to one another,” she said. “The more people feel that way, the more they’re buffered from long-term negative effects.”

However, she said, about three to six months after something like a mass shooting, mental health specialists start seeing a surge of clients.

“All of the care that happens is usually in the acute phase,” Littleton said, referring to the time period immediately following a traumatic event. “Right after, there’s all this support and resources being offered, and that’s important, but what happens six months, one year down the line when someone needs help? How can we provide sustained resources for folks who are struggling?”

This generation is going to make changes. We’re going to be the driving force in this country, we’re going to make sure people are getting the help they need, and we’re going to make sure the government is held accountable. Young people want to get involved; they want to be engaged.

– Dylan Morris, a survivor of the Oxford High School shooting and executive director of No Future Without Today

‘A death sentence for women’

Amid the movement around gun violence at the state legislative level, federal courts are proving to be a significant barrier to reform. 

On Thursday, a right-wing appeals court struck down a decades-old federal law that banned people who have domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms. 

The decision issued by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ three judge panel—all of whom were nominated by Republican presidents—said the law contradicts the country’s “historical tradition” of access to guns and was unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s landmark expansion of Second Amendment rights in June.

The 5th Circuit is based in New Orleans, and its decision applies in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In the United States v. Rahimi decision, the court threw out a guilty plea and six-year prison sentence for Zackey Rahimi, who had admitted to having guns in his Texas home while under a domestic violence restraining order for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend.

The judges rejected arguments that Rahimi was not entitled to Second Amendment protections. They said the federal statute barring those under domestic violence protection orders from possessing firearms is unconstitutional because it gives too much power to Congress to determine who qualifies as “law-abiding, responsible citizens” when it comes to gun ownership.

“Could speeders be stripped of their right to keep and bear arms? Political nonconformists? People who do not recycle or drive an electric vehicle?” the judges asked in the decision.

The decision landed a wave of intense criticism, with critics saying the decision sends a chilling message that abusers’ access to guns is more important in the eyes of the law than the lives of those who have experienced domestic violence.

“This extreme and dangerous ruling is a death sentence for women and families as domestic violence is far too often a precursor to gun violence,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement. “When someone is able to secure a restraining order, we must do everything possible to keep them and their families safe—not empower the abuser with easy access to firearms.”

In Michigan, state law does not automatically make it illegal for an abuser to own a gun if there is a personal protection order issued against them. A judge in Michigan does have the ability to include a firearm restriction in a personal protection order.

Last year, there was bipartisan and bicameral legislation introduced that would prohibit individuals convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from owning a gun or ammunition until eight years after they have paid any fines and completed their jail or probation terms. (There are already gun ownership restrictions placed on individuals convicted of felonies.) 

Despite support from some Republicans, those bills received no hearings or votes. Bayer said she expects lawmakers will take up legislation around prohibiting abusers from possessing firearms.

The federal court’s decision comes at a time when misogyny and gun violence are inextricably intertwined. Nearly two-thirds of intimate partner homicides in the U.S. are committed with a gun—and 80 percent of those victims are women, according to an Everytown analysis of National Violent Death Reporting System data. Everytown is a New York City-based nonprofit that advocates for gun reform across the country.

Every month, an average of 70 women in the US are shot and killed by an intimate partner, and nearly one million women who are alive today have reported being shot or shot at by an intimate partner, according to Everytown. More than 4.5 million women in the U.S. have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner.

Additionally, more than two-thirds (68.2%) of mass shootings in the US involve shooters who either killed family or intimate partners prior to the mass shooting or had another history of domestic violence, according to a 2021 study by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.

In Michigan, one of every five homicides of women involves a current or former intimate partner with a gun, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

“There’s a masculinity epidemic in the United States, and we’re seeing that time and again in these shootings,” Sarah Prior, a sociology professor at Michigan State University whose research focuses on gendered violence, said of mass shootings in a July 2022 interview with the Advance.

‘Not about taking people’s guns away’

For Bayer and state Rep. Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor), whose guest at the State of the State was Miller, the action emanating from gun violence victims now advocating for change should be lauded—and honored by passing gun reform legislation.

“I covered the Oxford school shooting for the New York Times,” said Conlin, who was a journalist prior to winning her first bid for office this past November. “You see how gun violence affects the entire community.”

When Conlin was driving home from covering the Oxford shooting, a phone call came: Would she be interested in running for office?

At first, she said no. But, under the weight of what she had seen in Oxford, she knew she wanted to be involved in change. That answer turned to maybe. Then, finally, yes.

“I know what it’s like to hear different perspectives,” she said. “In my district, there are pretty hard feelings on both sides [of the gun violence debate], but that’s why I feel like it’s important to talk to people about these common sense gun legislation reforms really being about safety and not about taking people’s guns away.”

That, Conlin and Bayer said, is something they emphasize time and again: Reform is not about taking people’s guns from them. 

“We want to make Michigan safer,” Conlin said. “Right now, people are nervous to go into grocery stores and nightclubs, and children are scared to go to school.”

Miller also focused on this idea. 

“I’ve talked to people opposed to gun reform all the time,” she said. “I grew up in a home where my dad went hunting; we had hunting rifles in our home, and we learned about responsible gun ownership. For people who are thinking this [red flag] law is about taking their firearms away, it’s not. I don’t want to take a firearm away from responsible gun owners, but I want to give choices and options to families like mine.”

Mental health resources 

This story was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

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