Michiganders are frustrated over new backpack bans at public schools. Republican lawmakers may have played a big role in their necessity—and now students are dealing with the consequences.
MICHIGAN—After a third-grade student was caught lugging a loaded handgun to his elementary school in his backpack this week, officials at Grand Rapids Public Schools decided to take what some view as a drastic measure:
Banning backpacks in all school buildings.
The gun found Wednesday at Stocking Elementary School marked the fourth time this year the district found a student with a handgun—three of them in backpacks. And with the US already experiencing more than 200 mass shootings this year, district officials aren’t taking any chances.
“I’m deeply concerned, frustrated and angry that in less than a week’s time we have confiscated two guns from elementary school children,” Superintendent Leadriane Roby told reporters this week. “This is not OK with me and it is not OK with our community. We have to come together to do something about guns getting into the hands of our babies. We will be a part of the solution.”
District officials also told reporters at a news conference this week that the district-wide backpack ban was “a drastic step,” but a necessary one in order to avert a potential tragedy. Flint Community Schools also decided to ban backpacks this month.
The response has been largely critical—with some Michiganders doubting the ability for a backpack ban to actually curb gun violence, and many more frustrated by its necessity.
Some students reportedly walked out of class in protest of the measure on Thursday.
But as several Democratic state lawmakers have already pointed out this week, Republican lawmakers (specifically the 18 of them in the state Senate) shoulder at least some of the blame for the “drastic” response—namely because of their efforts to make it easier for kids to access guns.
Across Michigan, concern over guns in schools hit a boiling point following a 2021 mass shooting by a 15-year-old student at Oxford High School that left four students dead and seven others injured. The shooter reportedly used a gun bought by his father, which was not safely secured at home. Investigators also believe the gun was stashed in the student’s backpack.
In direct response to that shooting, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation last month that requires gun owners to keep unloaded firearms in a locked storage box or container when it is “reasonably known” that a child is or is likely to be present on the premises. Lawmakers also designed it specifically to prevent situations like what happened in Grand Rapids this week.
The theory: New safe storage requirements will keep more guns out of the hands of kids. If parents keep them locked up, it will become more difficult for kids to take them to school. And if they do, at least cops will be able to hold parents and guardians accountable for their actions.
The new law also includes a series of criminal charges for those who fail to secure guns which later end up in the hands of children—starting with misdemeanor charges punishable by up to 93 days in jail and escalating to a felony that could carry a potential 15-year prison sentence.
Statistics show that about 4.6 million kids across the country live in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm. And research has also shown that stricter gun storage requirements have been effective in reducing youth suicide and unintentional gun deaths by up to 54%.
But because Michigan’s new gun safety legislation did not get enough votes to take immediate effect, the safe storage requirements won’t officially be on the books in Michigan until next year.
How Did Republicans Get in the Way?
In Michigan, laws signed by the governor do not take effect until 90 days after the end of the current legislative session—which for this session would be in March 2024. Lawmakers can bypass that delay by triggering a mechanism called “immediate effect”—but that requires supermajority support of at least two-thirds of the legislative body, or at least 26 senators.
In the state Senate, Democrats are in the majority, but it’s a slim, 20-18 majority.
Enacting the legislation in time for it to be enforced this year would’ve required support from every Democrat and at least six Republicans. But because every GOP senator voted against the plan, there is still no law on the books requiring guns to be locked up around kids.
Instead, Republican lawmakers have spent their time in Lansing trying to make it easier to access guns—namely by trying to repeal existing laws that criminalize carrying concealed guns without a permit, or inside certain prohibited places like churches, hospitals and sports arenas.
Several Democratic lawmakers called out their Republican colleagues for the consequences of their legislative delay tactics this week after GOP lawmakers introduced another bill that would require “trauma kits” to be installed in every classroom instead of other gun safety measures.
“Everyone needs to pay attention to these moments. The bottom line is, Republican votes, even though they hold the minority, have real consequences,” state Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said in a statement on Friday. “This is a glaring example of a situation that could have potentially been prevented if Michigan Republicans had chosen to stand with their constituents over the NRA.”
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