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DETROIT ― More than a week has passed since the shooting at Michigan State University ― long enough, I gather, that most of the country has moved on.
Three deaths isn’t a lot by the standards of mass killings nowadays. And that’s to say nothing of the more than 100 Americans who die every day from guns in murders, suicides and accidents. Most of those deaths don’t even make the news.
Here in Michigan, though, we are still dealing with the aftermath of the shooting ― and mourning the victims.
Tuesday was the funeral for Arielle Anderson, a 19-year-old sophomore from Detroit. Among the dignitaries present was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who spoke about Anderson’s “quiet confidence” and “loud compassion” and the “special bond” Anderson had with an aunt she helped care for.
MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar was there, too. She announced that the university was awarding a degree to Anderson as well as to Brian Fraser, 20, and Alexandria Verner, 20, the other two students who died last week.
At Fraser’s funeral last Saturday, a priest recalled his charisma and humor ― how he wasn’t the most gifted athlete but loved so much to be “part of a team.”
A speaker at Verner’s service remembered her as an idealist, someone who “saw something greater in mankind.”
Some of the shooting survivors have also been in the news ― among them, John Hao, 20, a student from China who was shot in the back and is now paralyzed. His parents, who speak no English, have flown to the U.S. to be with him. A friend set up a GoFundMe to cover his ongoing expenses and donations have poured in, including from NBA star James Harden, who heard that Hao was a big fan.
Harden threw in a pair of game-worn sneakers and chatted with Hao on FaceTime, telling him to stay strong. He also passed along his personal phone number so they could speak again in the future ― maybe in person, when Hao is well enough to attend a game as a special guest. Harden later told an ESPN interviewer he was hoping “to brighten John’s day, even if it was just for one minute.”
Students support each other at a memorial for the shooting victims at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.
That same impulse, to offer some kind of emotional support, is why thousands have turned out at vigils across the state. And it’s why, when MSU’s basketball team played the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor over the weekend, Michigan’s athletic department bathed the arena in green lights ― the official color of the MSU Spartans ― for a moment of silence and then a rendition of the MSU alma mater by Michigan’s band.
These in-state rivalry games are famous for their rough play on the hardcourt and not-so-friendly taunts from the stands. On this night, Michigan’s students held a banner that said “Spartan Strong,” the slogan everybody here uses to show solidarity.
That may sound familiar because it’s become the go-to phrase for mourning mass shootings ― as in “Uvalde Strong” or “Parkland Strong.” The phrase has a history that actually predates mass shootings; I first remember hearing it after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when the city embraced the motto “Boston Strong.”
Whatever its origins, its appropriation as a response to gun massacres has a certain logic — although the fact that shootings now have their own, well-established slogan is no cause for celebration.
The question now is whether the expressions of sympathy are just the high-gloss version of “thoughts and prayers” — or whether, for once, they will lead to some kind of response.
The University of Michigan student section raises the "Spartan Strong" flag prior to a game on Feb. 18, 2023, to support rival Michigan State after a deadly shooting there.
In Michigan, at least, there’s reason to think action is possible. This past week, Democrats in the legislature filed a series of bills to regulate gun access and storage, with plans to move quickly along three fronts: expanding the current background check system to cover all gun sales, establishing new rules for gun storage and putting in place a mechanism for obtaining “emergency risk protection orders.”
That last provision would create what’s come to be known as a “red flag law,” under which a judge could authorize police to take away a person’s firearms temporarily following evidence that the person is a danger to others or themselves.
These proposals are not new. Michigan Democrats introduced all of them a year ago after the shooting at Oxford High School, north of Detroit, that left four dead and seven injured. The proposals couldn’t even get a committee hearing because the Republicans in charge wouldn’t allow one.
Now, thanks to the 2022 elections, Democrats control the legislature and are moving ahead ― with Whitmer, the second-term Democrat who has been calling for these laws, ready to sign them.
That doesn’t mean their enactment is a foregone conclusion. The Democratic margins are wafer-thin, just two seats each in the 38-member Senate and 110-member House. Some of those represent more rural and conservative areas, where there are more gun owners and there is more suspicion of any kind of gun restriction.
One organization, Great Lakes Gun Rights, has called the Democrats’ push a “power grab” and an effort to exploit a tragedy for political gain, and has vowed to punish legislators who vote yes with recall efforts.
“If they think they’re going to be able to quietly pass these bills, without repercussions, I think they’re fooling themselves,” Brenden Boudreau, the organization’s executive director, told Michigan Radio.
But Great Lakes Gun Rights has been on the attack since even before the election when it tweeted out a ghoulish, green-colored caricature of Whitmer with the phrase “Gun-Grabbing Gretchen.”
And while the accusation of exploiting a massacre for political gain has deterred plenty of lawmakers in the past, it doesn’t seem to be deterring this generation of Democratic leaders, who have been anything but quiet about their intentions.
Some Democrats tweeted right back at the gun group, reaffirming their support for the proposals and effectively daring opponents to try a recall. Winnie Brinks, the new Michigan Senate majority leader, has appeared on multiple local and national television shows promising to bring the new proposals up for a vote and to get them to Whitmer’s desk.
“We will get this done,” Brinks vowed on MSNBC last week.
Her confidence reflects polling numbers that show the proposals under consideration are wildly popular, with even many Republican voters and gun owners. In fact, longtime proponents of these measures like Democratic Sens. Rosemary Bayer and Mallory McMorrow have said they believe some of these measures could even get Republican support now that GOP leadership isn’t blocking votes altogether.
Michigan state Rep. Brenda Carter and state Sen. Rosemary Bayer join hands during a news conference to call for gun reform on Feb. 20, 2023, in Lansing, Michigan.
Bayer told me on Friday that passing new gun laws was one of the two issues she heard most about while knocking on doors during the 2022 campaign. (The other was abortion.) She said Democratic leaders have heard from Republicans interested in the bills, and maybe interested in voting for them, though none would want to be the decisive, tie-breaking votes.
But lawmakers haven’t spent that much time in Lansing yet this year — and they need to update old legislation to make sure they are taking advantage of the latest feedback from states that have already introduced similar laws.
“We want to make sure we get all the voices in, we want to make sure we’re we’re as comprehensive as we can be ― and that we really have the best possible piece of legislation,” Bayer said.
Another high-profile Michigan Democrat with hopes of bipartisanship on gun laws is U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin. Slotkin is a former CIA officer who has won three elections in two partly rural, conservative-leaning districts ― the first included Oxford High, when the shooting there took place; the current one includes MSU.
“I’ve heard from countless hunters, sportsmen, local Republican leaders, business owners, big game enthusiasts and parents who carry concealed weapons,” Slotkin said in an editorial she wrote for the Detroit Free Press this week. “They have all been clear that they want to do something to protect our children from gun violence.”
Of course, the reason these proposals have such broad support is that they are relatively modest, the type only the most diehard gun rights supporters would see as a threat to liberty. And with gun rules, as with so many other kinds of legislation, modest measures tend to have only modest effects.
But at this point, enacting even incremental new rules for guns would represent a break with the political past. And sometimes, that is what it takes to create a different future.