DETROIT — The toll of Monday night’s massacre at Michigan State University, where three students died and five others suffered grievous wounds, is going to be felt in these parts for a long time.
Arielle Anderson, a sophomore, wanted to become a pediatric doctor. Brian Fraser, also a sophomore, was president of his fraternity. Alexandria Verner was a junior and a three-sport athlete in high school.
That’s three lives cut short, five more who carry around the scars forever, plus countless more who will deal with emotional trauma that is no longer unusual in American life.
But, usually, that experience is a novel one. For a handful on Monday, it wasn’t.
Among the students at MSU were several who were at Oxford High School, north of Detroit, where a gunman killed four and wounded seven others in late 2021. One texted her mother, according to an account in the Detroit Free Press, and said “Mom, I just want to come home, I want to hold you.”
That was to be expected, perhaps, given that MSU’s student body includes graduates from virtually every major public high school in Michigan. But it wasn’t just Oxford alumni reliving that kind of trauma.
Among those currently attending MSU is Jackie Matthews, a senior who lived through the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, 10 years ago. A little after midnight, in a room across the street from where the shooting took place, she put her thoughts into a TikTok video.
“I am 21 years old, and this is the second mass shooting that I have now lived through,” Matthews said. She went on to describe her memories of Sandy Hook ― of crouching under desks with her classmates for so long that she actually fractured vertebrae, an injury that to this day flares up when she’s under stress.
“The fact that this is the second mass shooting that I have now lived through is incomprehensible,” she added.
Incomprehensible ― except, again, maybe it’s not so incomprehensible.
MSU has 50,000 students, many of them from outside Michigan. It’s not all that surprising to find some who survived prior school shootings, given how common they’ve become, to say nothing of students whose lives gun violence has touched in some other way.
Every day in America, 22 children and teens are the victims of gun violence, according to the Brady organization. That number includes homicides and suicides, attempted and successful, sometimes in the course of other crimes and sometimes as singular acts.
Matthews ended her TikTok with a plea for action. “We can no longer just provide love and prayers,” she said. “It needs to be legislation.”
America’s Gun Violence Problem Is Unique
The case for action is strong. No other economically advanced country has so many firearm deaths or so many firearms in civilian hands. And there’s no mystery why guns here are so prevalent: It’s much easier to obtain and possess them.
Whether that easy access was a factor in the MSU shootings remains to be seen, with details of the incident and the alleged perpetrator still emerging.
He was a 43-year-old man who died hours after the killings, apparently after shooting himself. He had a prior misdemeanor conviction that, according to the Free Press, his lawyers pleaded down from a more serious felony gun charge, which may have been enough to make possession legal in his case.
Neighbors described the man as a “loner” who had difficult relations with family members, according to several media accounts, and recalled the sound of him taking target practice with an automatic weapon in the yard.
The shooter’s father has told reporters he asked his son whether he had a gun in the house, and the son denied it.
The full accounting of what happened may end up strengthening the case for more aggressive prosecution of gun crimes. The story could also be another argument in favor of more investment in mental health care.
But inconsistent prosecution of crime and high prevalence of mental illness are not uniquely American phenomena. Only the high number of guns and gun crimes are.
There’s no reason lawmakers can’t address all of those at once — which, to be clear, doesn’t mean they will.
A History Of (Mostly) Futile Legislative Efforts
For nearly a quarter-century now, demands for action have followed every mass shooting, going back to the Columbine High School massacre near Denver, Colorado, in 1999 and then Sandy Hook in 2012 ― after which President Barack Obama, speaking as a father as much as a president, teared up while vowing to enact new legislation.
He didn’t succeed, even though it was just months after he’d won a resounding reelection bid and even though polls showed the public behind him ― and even though, in the Senate, a compromise bill from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) had support from most Democrats and a few Republicans as well.
It was a modest package focusing on background checks, scaled way back from what Obama had originally proposed. But even those concessions weren’t enough to pry the votes necessary to prevail in a chamber where rural, more conservative states have disproportionate power ― and where, then as now, it took a supermajority of 60 votes to pass legislation.
One of the few exceptions took place last year, when the outrage over yet another massacre of small children ― this time in Uvalde, Texas ― led to a bipartisan gun bill that President Joe Biden signed. The law strengthens the existing background check system and seeks to cut down on so-called “straw purchases,” while putting money into mental health services.
That bill also provides states with funding for “red flag laws,” which set up a legal process for taking guns away from somebody that loved ones can demonstrate is a danger to others or themselves. (These are known as “extreme protection orders.”)
But enactment of that legislation took place against the backdrop of a landmark Supreme Court decision striking down a New York law restricting the ability to carry a gun in public ― and, with it, jeopardizing similar laws on the books across the country.
It was an extension of earlier decisions protecting a constitutional right to personal gun ownership, something the Supreme Court didn’t even recognize until 2008, and just this month two separate federal judges have cited that ruling as a reason to throw out state laws prohibiting gun possession by people who are subject to domestic violence orders.
Gun Legislation Finally Has A Chance In Michigan
Here in Michigan, passing gun laws has also been a struggle.
After the Oxford shooting, Democrats in the state legislature proposed a series of measures ― to create a more comprehensive background check system, to set new rules for gun storage and to set up a red flag system. Republican leaders in the legislature would not even give the proposals a hearing in committee.
That was possible because they’d dismissed previous efforts with no political consequences, thanks in part to support from gun rights advocacy groups and a deeply partisan gerrymander that gave Republicans an effective lock on control. But that gerrymander ended when Michigan voters approved an initiative to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission, and with those new districts in place, Democrats won control of the legislature for the first time since the 1980s.
Even before Monday’s shooting, Democratic leaders in the legislature had vowed to make those gun laws among their top priorities. After the shooting, they made clear they intended to press ahead ― and they didn’t mince words.
“Fuck your thoughts and prayers,” tweeted Rep. Ranjeev Puri, a Democrat whose district is in the western Detroit suburbs.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat who won reelection in November, didn’t use the same colorful language at a Tuesday morning press conference. She didn’t even mention legislation explicitly.
But she, too, has identified those gun proposals as a top priority, and she alluded to them in an emotional appearance when, like Obama 10 years ago, she had to hold back tears.
“This is a uniquely American problem,” said Whitmer, whose own kids now attend college in Michigan. “Our children are scared to go to school … words are not good enough.”
Evidence On Gun Laws Tells A Complex Story
The tough question about these measures is just how much good they will do.
The sheer number of guns now in circulation here in the U.S. means that gun violence is a reality that won’t go away easily. The most far-reaching response would be significant restrictions on gun ownership and possession, coupled with the kind of buyback that Australia launched following a high-profile massacre there.
But that action has no prospect of passing Congress right now. Even if it did, it wouldn’t get past this Supreme Court.
That leaves the kind of modest regulations now on the agenda in Michigan, among other states.
The evidence of their effectiveness is more suggestive than dispositive, as Rand Corporation researchers have found in a series of widely cited literature reviews. One reason is that, until recently, federal restrictions on funding gun violence research meant it was difficult to conduct the kind of studies necessary. Those restrictions were the handiwork of National Rifle Association allies on Capitol Hill.
But there’s enough research to suggest that some measures could make a difference. And it doesn’t take a ton of imagination to think a red flag law might have deterred the MSU shooter or others like him, especially if people were aware of the law. (That’s turned out to be a key issue in states that have passed these laws already: Not enough people know about them to make use of them.).
The main tradeoff of these systems is the process and scrutiny that prospective gun owners must go through and whether they represent an unforgivable infringement on liberty. The NRA and its supporters see it that way. So do plenty of elected officials, most of them Republican, still serving in Congress and state legislatures.
But the majority of Americans don’t seem to agree. Ideas like background checks consistently draw high approval numbers in surveys, across partisan lines, including a poll of Michiganders that the firm EPIC-MRC released in September.
Voters who support these measures may change their minds as the debate goes forward. It’s happened that way before. But it’s also possible the majority of Americans think liberty means the freedom to attend school without getting caught up in a massacre ― and then having to go through that experience all over again.