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Special report from Michigan: After mass shootings, many GOP leaders’ ‘concern is for guns,’ experts say

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

[Editor’s note: This special report was published by Policy Watch’s sibling States Newsroom outlet, the Michigan Advance in response to a recent school shooting in that state that claimed the lives of four schoolchildren.]

After police say a 15-year-old shot and killed four of his classmates and wounded seven others at Oxford High School in Michigan on Nov. 30, Igor Volsky, the co-founder and executive director of Guns Down America who led discussions in Flint and Lansing in 2019, did a search of U.S. Senate Republicans’ tweets to see what they said about the school shooting.

What did he find?

“Almost none of them said anything,” said Volsky, whose organization works on gun violence prevention nationwide. “The only person who said something was [U.S.] Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on his personal account. That’s a snapshot of how we have become immune [to mass shootings]. … Four people dead in Michigan is like, shrug, at this point.”

Public health experts across the country call gun violence an “epidemic” — since 12 students and one teacher were murdered during a mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, about 278,000 children in the United States have experienced gun violence at school. The federal government doesn’t keep a database on school shootings, but the Washington Post found that 157 children, educators and other people have been killed in school shootings since Columbine, and another 351 have been injured.

Igor Volsky

The physical and mental health effects from these shootings are immense and can stay with survivors for years, if not a lifetime, experts explain. And while some Republicans — U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), for example — have sponsored legislation in an attempt to curb these numbers, the overwhelming majority of elected officials and politicians on the political right have for decades been adamantly opposed to gun restrictions.

It wasn’t always that way. When Congress passed its landmark gun violence prevention legislation known as the Brady Bill in 1993, 54 GOP lawmakers — including three Michigan Republicans — voted to send the bill to then-President Bill Clinton’s desk. Four Michigan Democrats voted against it.

But in the nearly three decades that have passed since then, gun politics have shifted dramatically. It’s a shift that has left Republicans and Democrats consistently at odds with each other over gun legislation — and an evolution that Volsky explained is largely rooted in National Rifle Association (NRA) politics and white supremacy.

The deep partisan divide over gun restrictions was “boosted by the NRA in the aftermath of an internal rebellion they had in 1977, when it went from being an advocacy group for hunters and sports shooting and into the political animal it became,” Volsky said.

“They fed their members a steady diet of this kind of message that’s helped shape that identity,” he continued. “There’s been a steady diet of resentment politics that says, ‘Given the demographic shifts in this country, your place as a white man and the power you have as a white man is going to be usurped by people who don’t look like you.’”

Firearm ownership has now “become an identity,” Volsky explained.

“It goes beyond the instrument of the gun and is really embedded in the individual as an extension of themselves and the way they define themselves,” he said. “The firearm represents your power in society; it’s weaved into notions of white culture and, to some degree, white supremacy. The gun-owning population is overwhelmingly white, and the firearm historically since the beginning of our country has been used against Black people or against Native Americans. It’s hard to divorce that history from modern conceptions of gun ownership.”

Now, in the wake of another mass school shooting, this time in Michigan, the response from Republicans has included state Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) on Dec. 2 calling Democrats’ sadness over the shooting hypocritical because they support abortion rights.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) responded to a question about acting on gun legislation the day after the Oxford shooting by saying we as a society can’t become “obsessed with eliminating all risks” because we’ll “then develop and evolve into a country we won’t recognize because we’ll also have no freedom.”

The night of the Oxford shooting, Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock tweeted, “Many people tonight would give anything for a gun carrying teacher in Oxford today around 1pm. I personally LIKE being around people with guns.” Another right-wing politician, Audra Johnson — who’s planning to primary U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), attended the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, had a Trump-themed wedding in 2019, and recently told the New York Times that she believes the country is “heading toward a civil war” — responded to the shooting by defending the parents of Ethan Crumbley, who police say shot and killed the students at Oxford.

“I don’t put eyes on my guns everyday,” Johnson said in a video. “I keep them safely secured, but, to me, if you’re going to say these people are horrible parents because they didn’t report the gun missing until after the shooting, that just cements the fact they didn’t know this child had the gun.”

According to police, Ethan Crumbley’s father, James Crumbley, purchased on Black Friday the hand gun allegedly used by his son to shoot his fellow students that following Tuesday. James and Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan Crumbley’s parents, have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter Friday.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said that on the day of the shooting a teacher witnessed a drawing by Ethan Crumbley that included the words, “the thoughts won’t stop, help me,” a drawing of a bullet, and the phrase “blood everywhere.” McDonald said the 15-year-old’s parents were summoned to the school in response to the drawing but refused to take him home with them.

McBroom, Shirkey, Johnson, and the Michigan Republican Party did not return requests for comment.

While Michigan’s congressional Republicans have responded to the shootings, with Upton, for example, pushing for background checks before people can purchase guns and Meijer calling the event “awful news” in a tweet, other House Republicans decided the days after the Michigan shooting was the time to publish images of them and their children posing with guns.

On Dec. 4, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) released a Christmas message on social media that showed him and his family posing with large guns and accompanied by the words, “Merry Christmas! P.S. Santa, please bring ammo.” After widespread backlash against the image being released in the wake of the Oxford shooting, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted a photo of her and her children posing with guns in front of a Christmas tree.

“The Boeberts have your six,” Boebert tweeted at Massie.

The congresswoman then added, “No spare ammo for you, though.”

Melissa Ryan, the editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete (CARD) newsletter and CEO of (CARD) Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm that helps organizations understand the threat of extremism and online toxicity, said the Republicans’ responses to the shooting are emanating from an already well-established landscape of political extremism in Michigan.

“You’re in a state where the Senate majority leader was advising militia groups and people were planning to kidnap your governor [Democrat Gretchen Whitmer],” Ryan said. “The rhetoric has been heightened for some time.

“We know that the vast majority of Americans are for some sort of gun safety regulations, but state legislatures and Congress are not set up to give us that because of gerrymandering,” Ryan continued.

Instead, Ryan said, Republican lawmakers are “no longer speaking to every citizen of Michigan” when they address the school shooting.

“They’re speaking to their base, to the extreme,” Ryan said. “… The GOP is extremely pro-gun, pro-violence. We’ve seen time and again with these school shootings their concern isn’t with the safety of children at schools; their concern is for guns.”

They’re speaking to their base, to the extreme…The GOP is extremely pro-gun, pro-violence. We’ve seen time and again with these school shootings their concern isn’t with the safety of children at schools; their concern is for guns.

– Melissa Ryan, editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter and an expert on political extremism

This is criticism that state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) issued during the Dec. 2 Senate session.

“For three years, I have stood up in this chamber year after year after year to introduce a resolution merely to recognize Gun Violence Awareness Month,” McMorrow said. “And year after year after year not only has this resolution not been adopted, the majority hasn’t even let us vote on it. Year after year after year I’ve stood up here merely to ask that we as the Michigan Senate are aware of the issue of gun violence. Are we aware now? Is it close enough to home? Does it even matter?”

For McMorrow, it matters deeply. She lost a friend in the 2007 Virginia Tech attack, when 32 people were shot and killed and 17 others were wounded.

“It changes your life forever; you never recover from it,” McMorrow said.

The lawmaker said she gave her Dec. 2 speech after “a woman in my district who teaches at Oxford messaged me saying she and her colleagues who survived the shooting need [lawmakers] to do something” to stop gun violence. She also spoke with a father from Oxford who asked what “can we do to help you change this,” referring to moving gun violence legislation forward in Michigan.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” she said. “I tell them to join Moms Demand Action, to talk to their representatives. I’m saying, ‘If this issue is important to you, you need to ask every person on your ballot where they stand on this issue.’”

During her Dec. 2 speech, McMorrow cited the role the NRA has played in changing Republicans’ attitudes towards gun violence.

“If I’m not mistaken, ever since the NRA changed course after Columbine by telling you that your rights are under attack and that someone is coming for your guns; has anyone ever come for your guns?” McMorrow asked. “Instead, we’ve seen record gun sales year after year after year, meaning there are more guns in our communities, and that easy access to firearms has created a reality where children are killing children. Instead of addressing the root cause, we have been training children on drills to make themselves less likely to be killed.

“Are you in this job to represent and protect the people you serve, or are you here to sell guns?” McMorrow continued. “We can’t even recognize gun violence in this chamber. Wouldn’t dare, right? So I’m not going to stand up here today and ask you to do something because you’ve already made that choice. But if you’re not going to do anything, then get out of the way so that some of us can at the very least try.”

The response to her statements has been “overwhelmingly positive,” including from Republican ex-staffers, McMorrow said in an interview Tuesday.

One Republican who reached out to her said, “‘We don’t agree on very much, but you’re exactly right,’” she told the Advance. She added that the “majority of people” support legislation curbing gun violence, including so-called “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.

A couple years ago, Shirkey promised Democrats they would get a hearing on red flag legislation introduced by state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), which didn’t happen because of COVID-19. McMorrow said Democrats are expected to reintroduce that legislation this year and hope Shirkey will follow through on his promise. Other than that potential hearing, McMorrow said she doubts there will be action from Republicans on gun violence bills.

“There’s this huge disconnect where I think an overwhelming majority of people are and where the Michigan GOP is,” McMorrow said.

McBroom seethed at McMorrow’s Dec. 2 speech and, following her statements, lambasted Democrats in his own statement on the Senate floor the same day.

“It’s part of the human tragedy that death is with us,” McBroom said. “It’s part of one of those axioms about one of the things that is unavoidable, and I think that to imply that anybody is valuing guns more than life is a ridiculous, reductive argument to the point of almost an inexplicable unkindness and insult.”

McBroom went on to call Democrats hypocrites because they support abortion rights.

“We are not unsympathetic to these things; how dare anybody imply that?” McBroom said of Republican lawmakers. “Especially people who at the same time are celebrating the millions of lives snuffed out annually that’s condoned by our current laws in this country. Those are lives, too. What about their right to life? What about their freedoms? These are real people.”

In analyzing McBroom’s statements, Michael Traugott, a research professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, asked, “How can one equate the inevitability of death with being shot?”

“There’s a difference between a violent act with a gun and aging out,” Traugott said. “It’s a false analogy.”

The kinds of debates that have erupted in Michigan following the shooting — in which Democrats push for action around curbing gun violence and Republicans hold tight to ideas of personal freedoms or, like state Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) did, promote arming teachers — are unlikely to dissipate, political experts told the Advance.

“There’s this 40-year polarization pattern around guns,” said Matt Grossmann, a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “It hasn’t always been this vitriolic. …There used to be a lot more Democrats against gun control and Republicans for it. That’s less and less so. In the last five years or so, guns have become much more of a symbol of alliance with the right. They see a need to be as proactively pro-gun as possible.”

That translates to Republican legislators at both the state and federal level being unlikely to compromise on gun legislation, Traugott explained.

“The ability to negotiate or compromise is increasingly difficult,” he said. “There’s some legislation that has passed in the House, but, for a variety of reasons, the Senate, especially given the active role of [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) being essentially a blocking institution, we’re not getting effective policies in a number of dimensions, including gun possession, out of Congress. And then, if you can’t get national laws, you’re left with this patchwork of state regulations.”

Even Democratic officials at the federal level have seemed fairly reluctant to make a hard push for gun restrictions this year, Volsky said.

“When there were school shootings under [former President Barack] Obama, he’d walk into the briefing room, give remarks, go to the community; here, with the Michigan shooting, President Biden gave remarks in Minneapolis, spends a minute sending thoughts to the Michigan families, and quickly pivotes to talking bout the infrastructure law.”

“There was a tweet the White House sent out; there’s no conversation that the issue of guns should be higher on the president’s priorities,” Volsky continued. “That shows a devolution of how school shootings galvanize political action.”

There’s this 40-year polarization pattern around guns. It hasn’t always been this vitriolic. …There used to be a lot more Democrats against gun control and Republicans for it. That’s less and less so. In the last five years or so, guns have become much more of a symbol of alliance with the right. They see a need to be as proactively pro-gun as possible.

– MSU professor Matt Grossmann

Despite an antagonistic history — and present — over gun politics, Michigan Democrats said they remain hopeful that, in the wake of Oxford, their Republican colleagues will work with them to pass legislation that curbs gun violence.

“We’re not out to penalize responsible gun owners,” state Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) said. “But there are bad people who have guns in their hands.”

Carter, who chairs the Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus alongside Bayer, whose district includes Oxford, recently introduced legislation that would prohibit the sale and possession of high-capacity magazines, such as the one police say Crumbley used at Oxford. As with a string of other Democratic bills meant to address gun violence, no hearings have been scheduled for the legislation.

“I’m aware of the climate we’re dealing with right now, but I’m hoping we can put partisanship aside and work to make our communities safe,” Carter said.

For things to truly change, however, McMorrow said there likely needs to be a group of “responsible gun owners” who can galvanize action around gun violence.

“It’s got to be military people, people who own firearms, who are hunters, who understand anytime [mass shootings] happen, it’s a bad look for anyone standing up for the Second Amendment,” McMorrow said. “We don’t have that group yet, and I hope it gets formed.”

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, which first published this report.

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