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Senate Panel Hears Wrenching Testimony from Survivors, County Prosecutors on Gun Control Bills

Credit: iStock

by Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
March 5, 2023

An 11-bill package aimed at preventing gun violence in the wake of last month’s Michigan State University mass shooting received its first Senate committee hearing, with votes slated for next week before measures move to the full chamber.

“I unconsciously step over the places in our school hallway where my classmates died. Is this how America wants our youth to grow up?” asked Oxford High School senior Dylan Morris on Thursday as he sat before the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Committee. Dylan Morris, a senior at Oxford High School student and the executive director of No Future Without Today, at the End Gun Violence Michigan press conference in Oxford, Michigan on Jan. 18, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Morris, a survivor of the 2021 Oxford shooting that claimed four young lives, was just one of numerous school shooting survivors who testified during the three-hour-long hearing.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), chair of the committee, said the panel will continue to hear testimony and possibly vote on the firearm-related bills at the next regularly scheduled committee meeting on March 9. A House panel on Wednesday heard testimony on similar bills.

Other speakers included students-turned-activists at Michigan State University, where three students were murdered by a gunman last month. Parents of survivors, MSU professor Marco Díaz-Muñoz, MSU student body president Jo Kovach, Attorney General Dana Nessel and several county prosecutors also spoke in support of the bills.

Díaz-Muñoz was teaching in Berkey Hall when a gunman opened fire in his classroom on Feb. 13, killing two of his students. A third student was killed at the MSU Union.

Among the survivors’ parents was an Oxford mother who is a gun owner, a concealed carry permit holder and a self-described moderate conservative who supports the bill package.

“People are complex, and they’re not politically aligned the way you may think that they are,” Linda Watson said. “Regardless, this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This isn’t a red versus blue, liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat.

“Nope. As it turns out, it’s the speed of your child’s Nikes versus the speed of a bullet.”

The legislative package includes:

Senate Bill 76 would require a license or background check for the purchase of firearms.Senate Bill 77 would update references to pistols in Michigan’s penal code.Senate Bill 78 would update firearms references in sentencing guidelines.Senate Bill 79 would provide for penalties for storing or leaving a firearm where it may be accessed by a minor.Senate Bill 80, tie-barred with SB 79, would update sentencing guidelines references accordingly.Senate Bill 81would exempt firearm safety devices from the state’s sales tax.Senate Bill 82 would exempt firearm safety devices from the state’s use tax.Senate Bill 83 would enact the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act — otherwise known as a “red flag” law Senate Bill 84 would prohibit the purchase of firearms if an individual has an extreme risk protection order.Senate Bill 85 would enact sentencing guidelines for making a false statement in support of an extreme risk protection order.Senate Bill 86 would waive court fees and provide for service of process for extreme risk protection order actions.

“We know that the efficacy of gun safety and gun violence prevention laws is predicated largely upon the public’s understanding of them and law enforcement’s willingness to administer and prosecute them,” Nessel told the panel Thursday. 

On the day of the MSU shooting, she had just picked up one of her sons from campus a short time before the violence broke out.

“And if local police agencies cannot or will not enforce these laws, then I will. Further, if challenged in a court of law, it will be my honor and solemn duty to vigorously defend this legislation,” Nessel continued.

The committee room was packed throughout the hearing, with the vast majority of the speakers testifying in strong support of various bills in the package. Most attention was focused on the proposed “red flag” laws and safe storage bills.

Only two speakers, invited by state Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) — one of two Republicans on the seven-lawmaker panel, alongside state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.) — spoke against the red flag laws and claimed they would cause more deaths.

These lines of discussion, particularly the testimony from controversial pro-gun researcher John Lott, at times drew angry outbursts from the audience.

Runestad also argued with Nessel during her testimony over certain hypothetical situations regarding red flag laws.Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at a gathering at the Michigan Capitol following the Feb. 13, 2023 mass shooting at Michigan State University, Feb. 15, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

“I would just caution you, unless you are talking to people who actually attend crime scenes and deal and sit with victims every day of gun violence. … I caution you and ask to see that data,” said Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, seemingly in response to Lott’s testimony.

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton and Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting also spoke in support of the bills.

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard also submitted written testimony in favor of the legislation.

“You’re decades late. You’re thousands of lives late,” said Reina St. Juliana, whose 14-year-old sister was among thosekilled at Oxford High School. “But now is better than later. Safe storage, universal background checks [and] extreme risk protection orders are just the beginning to fighting this epidemic.

“But if they can save one person’s future, if this can save one family from experiencing this eternal nightmare, it’s worth enacting now.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.