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Supporters of gun safety legislation held rallies across the state of Michigan this week, including one in Oxford, a north Detroit suburb that was the scene of a November 2021 high school massacre.
Among the speakers there were Madeleine Johnson, a shooting survivor who saw her best friend die. She spoke about the fear of public speaking she once had — and how that fear was “snatched from me along with my childhood the moment I heard the first bullet bang in my ears.”
“There are a lot scarier things in this world than giving speeches,” she said, according to a report in The Detroit News. “I don’t have a place in my life to be a kid anymore, but I’ll be happy to sacrifice that, and I’ll be happy to talk until you listen so no one else has to grow up overnight.”
The frustration felt by Johnson and other gun legislation advocates was palpable and mirrored what has happened since the Oxford shooting – when Republicans, who controlled the legislature, refused to act despite the well-known deluge of “thoughts and prayers”.
But that could change soon because Republicans no longer control the legislature. Democrats do. They won the midterm elections Majorities in both the Michigan House of Representatives and the Senatesomething they haven’t had since the 1980s.
Democratic leaders have made it clear they want to pass a trio of gun laws: universal background checks, new gun custody requirements, and so-called “red flag” laws designed to prevent firearms from getting into the hands of people who pose an imminent threat others or yourself. Newly re-elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it did high priorities for you too.
These reforms are part of a larger one agenda that Whitmer and the newly empowered Democrats hope to stand now that they can finally act. It includes everything from increasing tax credits for working families to codifying protections for reproductive rights.
And it’s not just Michigan where this type of activity is likely to take place. You’ll hear similar plans from Democratic officials in other states where they have the power to pass laws — particularly the other three (Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota) where, as in Michigan, the Democrats are getting that power for the first time in years.
Of course, passing laws is never as easy as promising them. The exercise of moving from slogans to specifics – translating abstract concepts into statutory detail – is inevitably difficult, particularly on issues where the opposition is well-funded and well-organised.
But in today’s political environment, Democrats have one major advantage: they seem to be more in tune with popular opinion than Republicans on many of the key issues they are addressing at the state level.
Gun safety is one of those issues.
Gun control policy has changed
That might sound hard to believe, at least in Michigan, where about 4 in 10 adults have at least one gun. But it turns out the three reforms the Democrats are pushing are hugely popular, according to polls — including a September poll by EPIC MRA in which all three were supported by at least the majority and two even by members of the National Rifle Association.
It is not easy to prove that these measures will have an impact on gun violence because the scientific research on them is incontrovertible hard to find. But there is plenty suggestive evidence that these measures can at least marginally reduce mass shootings and perhaps have an even greater effect on suicides.
The ability to reduce suicides is one reason gun safety laws have long been a priority Rosemary Bayer, a veteran Democratic Senator from Michigan. Bayer told me that two people died by suicide in her lifetime – a classmate in high school and later a member of her family. “You never forget that, ever, if it happened to someone close to you,” she said. “You think what could I have done, what should I have done.”
But Bayer also reacts to the killings of others – be it in everyday life or in mass shootings like in Oxford, which took place in her neighborhood.
I happened to speak to her a few weeks later. She was shaken by the tragedy, as was everyone in the area, but hoped the combination of sympathy and anger could finally lead to action — especially since Senate Republican leader Mike Shirkey had promised to hold a hearing on the issue. But he never did.
Shirkey was able to wield this kind of power because Republicans held the state legislature firmly in their grip, thanks to manipulations that protected their majority even when they didn’t keep up with public opinion. Last year was the first election in which districts were instead drawn by a bipartisan commission. Not coincidentally, this is the first time the Democrats have regained control in decades.
Majorities are not large, to be clear – just a handful of seats. And opposition to even their modest gun control proposals is sure to be fierce. But support for these measures is pretty solid, according to EPIC MRA President Bernie Porn. If anything, it’s stronger than it was a few years ago because of all the recent attention to mass school shootings.
“It’s possible that robust debate would lead to a drop in support for many of the proposals tested, but I think that would only happen if gun safety law advocates were weak in their efforts to articulate counter-messages on these issues,” said Porn in an email.
Republicans will no longer be able to dodge the votes
Democratic State Sen. Mallory McMorrowwho is the majority whip and longtime supporter of these proposals, said she too thinks gun policy is changing.
“The fact that this is significantly impacting our own backyard – from the Oxford High School shooting to a number of commonplace gun violence incidents that have happened here in Michigan – I think public opinion on this issue is changing significantly has,” McMorrow told me.
McMorrow noted that the measures she and other Democrats are proposing have the support of some local Republican officials, which will make it difficult for opponents to portray their efforts as purely partisan. “We’ve had some local Republican partners in the past, we just couldn’t push that through,” she said.
In the past, GOP leaders have prevented bills from going through committee or getting part of the floor to save members from having to vote on them. Now lawmakers must explain their positions — and Bayer believes at least some Republicans will think twice before voting no to these widespread measures.
“This is the first time they’ve really had to speak for themselves,” Bayer said. And if those Republicans don’t back the proposals, they risk a backlash from a majority of Michigan voters — not to mention activists like Maddie Johnson, whose voices and personal stories have already made such an impact.
If you or someone you know needs assistance, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get SMS support by visiting Suicide Preventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside the US please Visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.