Politics

A Michigan Lawmaker on What She Really Needs to Pass Gun Control

An Oxford High School sign covered in flowers and candles
A memorial outside Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan, on Dec. 1. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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On Nov. 30, Oxford High School became the latest school in the U.S. to experience a mass shooting, with 11 people shot and four killed, all of them teenagers. The tragedy is personal for Michigan state Sen. Rosemary Bayer: She used to live in Oxford—and she’s been pushing for stricter gun laws since she took office in 2019. “It’s kind of a strange coincidence,” she says. “It’s pretty important to me, and then there it was, in my own district and in my own community.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Bayer about whether the Oxford shooting will change anything, what to make of the criminal charges against the shooter’s parents, and what it will take for Michigan to adopt stricter gun laws. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Prosecutors are charging not only the gunman, who was a student at Oxford High School, but his parents, because they gave him access to a gun. I thought that might be heartening for you.

Rosemary Bayer: Well, it’s a victory in that they got charged. It’s not a victory in the sense that the charge is not specific enough. We’re concerned that it won’t stick.

What do you mean by that?

Well, even the prosecutor herself said our laws are woefully inadequate to the task here. What we really needed is the laws that we keep advocating for.

The law that you wanted to pass.

Yes, a law that I want to pass, the safe storage law, that would hold people accountable for someone giving a minor access to a weapon because it’s not safely stored and then something bad happens. That would be a felony. If we get that passed, it’s a felony. It’s very direct, it’s very specific, much more difficult for a court case to work around it.

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The parents say that their weapons were safely stored, so that’s in dispute. It’s something that will come out at trial, I’m sure.

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Can you tell the story of the legislation you introduced earlier this year requiring the safe storage of guns? What would it do?

First of all, it defines what it means to safely store a firearm. And then there’s established penalties, specifically a five-year felony, if a minor gets access to that and something happens, so harm to themselves or harm to another person. It does a little bit more than that, because the fact is, a lot of times, people don’t safely store their firearms. They literally don’t think about it. So this would also require the sellers to have people read and sign a document that says, I understand that I’m legally responsible to safely store this, and if something happens and a minor gets access to this weapon and hurts themselves or others, I am responsible and will be convicted of a felony. So that there’s no question that they were reminded of the law. Can’t back out of this in any way, this is a serious business, and you sign here and recognize and acknowledge that you knew this in advance. That’s part of the bill.

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What made you propose this legislation?

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We have been proposing safe storage and other very commonsense safety regulations for years. And we do it every session. Now, some things are new. This week, we’re introducing a new bill that would restrict the size of the magazine capacity.

So fewer bullets.

Fewer bullets, exactly. Which may have actually made a difference in what happened last week, to be honest.

Does Michigan have any safe storage requirements right now?

No.

I read that your bill got stuck in committee. I’m wondering if you can explain that. The Republican Party controls the state Legislature in Michigan.

They do. The way it works here is the party in the majority decides everything. They decide who’s on the committees, how many people on each side are on the committees, so all of our committees are overwhelmingly loaded with Republicans because they’re in the majority. So I have a committee where it’s four to one, I’m the only Democrat, there’s no chance, and in fact it takes two people even to get a motion to have a bill considered. I mean, it’s that bad. So first thing is the imbalance of people on the committees, but the fact is that the leadership in every committee is Republican, and they decide which things get a hearing in committee, and we have never had a hearing on any of our gun sense legislation at all.

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How do you approach that as a legislator? Do you walk into the committee and you look at the four Republicans and you think, Which of these people can I work on? How do you do it?

So in other topics, not anything to do with firearms, I do do that. I work with them all the time. I know the people that are interested in specific topics, you go talk with them, you find ways to work together, and you can try to get things done. In this circumstance—and there’s others like this, by the way—but in this circumstance, there’s one person in the Senate that really does control this conversation, and no one will buck that. None of the Republicans will stand up and do anything different than the top-level messaging.

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Who controls the message?

It’s the leader of the Senate. The Republican majority leader of the Senate, his name is Mike Shirkey.

Yeah, I read that the bill had no Republican co-sponsors.

No. And it won’t, until something changes. They’re not going to go against the party line on this, regardless—and I do believe that some of them do think there’s some commonsense reasons to do some of these things. But they’re not going to buck that and go against the line.

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Do you ever have any off-the-record conversations with a Republican where you’re just like, “We should get this done, you talk to your guy, I’ll talk to mine, we’ll find a way”?

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There’s a couple of issues that you just don’t do that. This is one of them.

I have talked with Sen. Shirkey, and shortly before COVID hit, he did agree to have a hearing on one of my bills. Not the safe storage one—it was on the extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag legislation. And it’s proven to have an impact, particularly in suicide—that’s where most of the data is, and that’s kind of how I first got involved here. So that’s one that he has agreed to do a hearing on. And we didn’t do it because COVID hit like two weeks later and it got postponed three times and now we’re gonna of course ask to have a hearing. I don’t know that we would be able to get him to change his mind and talk about safe storage first. Probably not.

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In 2018, you became the first Democrat to win your district in over a decade. Republicans have controlled the Michigan state Senate since the mid-1980s. But you see problems that go all the way back to voter education, basic political organizing—for example, people don’t seem to understand what it is you do.

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Most people don’t have a very good understanding of our state government, of what we do here, the connection between things that happen here at our state Capitol and things that happen in their lives. I’m new to this, this is my first elected office, and when I first started campaigning, I didn’t actually know what to do, so I knocked on a lot of doors and asked people what they thought was important. And many times I heard people say, “You mean there’s a Senate in Michigan?” So they don’t associate it with anything that has real meaning. When they think of state government, they typically think of the governor, because that’s where the visibility is. So I do believe that outside pressure is needed to help people understand that the people you vote for are the ones deciding whether or not you think we should protect your kids at school.

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But when I think about the debate over gun control, I don’t think it lacks for outside pressure. I think that there are a lot of special interests here fighting mightily for more gun rights and more gun restrictions.

Yeah. So imagine if you lived in the middle of the rural parts of Michigan in the middle of the mitten. You don’t have any idea that the people here in Lansing are deciding whether or not there is any safe storage regulation. In Michigan, the polls consistently, even 90 percent, including gun owners, think we should have universal background checks, one of the most fundamental things—and we can’t get a hearing on that. The voters don’t realize, those people polled all over the state don’t realize, that the people here in Lansing are making a decision that is contrary to what they want.

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So what if we had people in the middle of Michigan call their legislator and say, “I’m only going to vote for someone who agrees with me on this issue, who thinks that we should have some protections and some just commonsense safety regulation on firearms, and I’m not going to vote for you if you don’t agree with that”? Would you think that maybe we could actually change the script a little bit if we could somehow get that kind of attention? It’s got to be about voting. I mean, lobbyists are great, but they’re not reaching the voters.

I wonder if you’ve let yourself think about what might have happened if your law had been passed. Like whether it could have prevented what took place at the high school last week.

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I think any one of these probably would have had an impact. The idea of knowing that you need to safely store this or it’s a felony. Or could it be that magazine capacity was restricted unless people got shot? I mean, any of those things would have had an impact. There’s a lot of ways to make this better. And they don’t take people’s guns away. They just bring safety to the picture.

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Do you find yourself in conversations with constituents who are worried you’re going to take their guns away?

Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely.

What do you tell them?

I tell them we’re not trying to take their guns away. We’re just trying to make it safe. And here’s why. And most of the time, that’s a good conversation.

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You mentioned the Republican majority leader, Shirkey. Over the last few days, he’s said things like the way to support Oxford is to “give them space.” He said, “If we get obsessed with eliminating all risks, we will … evolve into a country we won’t recognize, because we’ll also have no freedoms.” I wonder if you had any kind of reaction hearing that.

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I did. My very first thought was, oh, your freedom to have guns tops their freedom to live? We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There’s no gun stuff in that sentence. They’re so extreme on this topic it doesn’t even make any sense. And he’s the same person who told the media that he was OK with the number of people dying of COVID. I mean, he’s just got a different perspective on what life means. And I disagree with it, fundamentally.

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One Republican representative has introduced a bill allowing teachers to have guns inside schools—in lockboxes, but they’d be able to arm themselves. And this is in the wake of the shooting.

Yeah, that is literally insane. And no teacher that I’ve ever talked to, or anyone else for that matter, wants a gun at school. That’s a nutty idea in every perspective.

But given the way the Republicans are talking about this issue, how do you strategize to push right now?

As much as we will continue to do everything we can, I really believe that we need to ask for help outside of this place. This work that we do here we have tried inside over and over again. Without a change in the makeup of the Legislature here in Michigan, we’re not going to get this done. You know, people could do that from the outside by calling their legislator and saying, “If you don’t fix this, I’m not voting for you.” Or just don’t vote for them. People could do that all over the state and really start to change the conversation, better than any groups here or us can do.

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Do you understand why that hasn’t taken off? And who needs to be doing that work?

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I don’t. I certainly don’t know how, because I think if we knew how, we would already be launching on that. I don’t know if it’s because we’re Democrats and we tend to be a little bit more independent. We would have to work as an entire collective around the state to move into areas where we don’t typically really do a lot. We tend to say, OK, well, that’s a Republican space and this is not, or this is a space that we could fight for. But not really focus on, specifically, these are polarizing issues that we could inspire and teach people why it matters how you vote, even at the state level.

You’re saying Democrats are ceding some space here.

I think in our strategies overall, we tend to have places where we know we’re not going to win. And so we don’t try. And I think part of the issue is that we don’t really know if we could actually change people’s minds if we never try. We have to go there and talk about—maybe it’s education, maybe it’s gun violence, maybe it’s, what’s a compelling issue that would help people understand who you vote for can really make a difference in your daily life? I’ve had so many people say to me, “Why would I vote? It’s not gonna matter, it doesn’t change anything.” Just that fundamental thing, right? Well, here’s some reasons why you might want to vote.

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