'Mothers and others' call for gun law reform in Detroit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — With each new mass shooting, Karen Badynee-Kwolek feels less upset than she used to get, less upset than she feels she should be.

She doesn't want to. She knows each shooting comes at a great human cost. But it's human nature, she said.

"It's like my brain can only take so much, like it's protecting me," she said Sunday afternoon while sitting on a curb at Spirit Plaza in downtown Detroit. "When Columbine happened (in April 1999) I was paralyzed by it."

That doesn't mean she doesn't want things to change, for the better and fast.

Survivors, community leaders, and supporters of gun violence prevention hold a rally calling for the U.S. Senate to pass background checks and a "red flag" law on Sunday in Detroit.

Badynee-Kwolek, 62, of Commerce Township was one of hundreds who joined a rally Sunday near City Hall to fight for the passage of federal legislation for mandatory background checks before gun sales and a process to allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from homes of those who exhibit "red flags." 

She carried a hand-written sign of the Mother Jones mass shooting database, which tracks events from 1982-2019. One side of the sign lists the various shootings in black. In bright orange, she wrote: "The Second Amendment Does Not Support Gun Violence." The other side lists the number of shootings and the types of guns used in them. In big orange block letters, the sign reads: "Well Regulated Is Not An Infringement."

"I realize just marching doesn't stop a gun, doesn't stop a bullet," she said. "But eventually, as we keep voting, and we keep winning — and we will keep winning — politicians will realize that they can run for office, knowing that these people will support them. This is a real thing."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan's 12th congressional District speaks to supporters of gun violence prevention Sunday in Detroit.

Sunday's rally came just hours after an eight-hour period, between Saturday night and Sunday morning, where eight people shot in Detroit, one of them fatally, at six shooting scenes. 

U.S Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, cited those numbers during her speech.

"It's happening in our own neighborhoods," Dingell said. "We've got to do something."

Sunday's rally was meant for "mothers and others," and it drew a crowd of about 400 people from all walks of life.

The rally was put on by the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in collaboration with Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Both are under the umbrella of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Lindsay Warren, a deputy leader of the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action, said the rally was meant for "mothers and others," and it drew a crowd of about 400 people from all walks of life.

"Our focus is to get Congress to act at a federal level to get background checks passed,"  Warren of Royal Oak said before the rally.

"The House has passed this, but the Senate has not acted (on the legislation). That’s the biggest focus. We’ve had some success at the state levels, but we really want to work at the national level so every American is covered, and every American is safer."

President Pro Tem of Detroit City Council Mary Scheffield speaks at the rally Sunday.

Mary Sheffield, president pro tem of the Detroit City Council, has participated in several Moms Demand Action events in recent years. On Sunday, she urged leaders to consider the social determinants of gun crime, not merely the response to it.

"Access to guns is one portion of it, but it's the underlying social issues that breed crime," Sheffield said. "Both of those have to be tackled. You can't surveillance your way out of this. You have to be able to attack the core issues of why it's happening."

Sheffield said she's unaware of any pending City Council action on gun access.

While the rally was spurred by mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, it was the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, during which 20 children and six adults were killed, that led to the creation of the national Moms Demand Action group, Warren said there's more to the story of gun violence in America than mass shootings.

"Of course these mass shootings get a lot of press because they’re alarming, and terrifying, and no one ever wants to be a part of one, but what often gets ignored in cities like Detroit or Baltimore or Chicago is the daily gun violence,” Warren said.

She added that 60% of gun deaths in America are suicides, numbers confirmed by a June 2019 statistical report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"You can't ignore that either."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Detroit police Chief James Craig said Sunday that he has no problem with either background checks or red flag laws, at the conceptual levels, but would need to see the details to support a specific plan.

"I take pause because it's not well-defined," Craig said of background checks. "What is the piece that both sides can agree on? No one wants guns in the hands of criminals, and no one wants guns in the hands of the severely mentally ill. But how do you get there?"

As for possible laws allowing police to take guns from people deemed to exhibit "red flags," Craig's concern was due process. Would it require only a third-party report to trigger a gun seizure? A medical diagnosis? 

"Due process is key," Craig said. "Ultimately, it's not the guns, it's the individual" and how that person uses the gun, he said. 

Craig said he's seen a number of cases in Detroit where a gun was bought by someone without a criminal record, who could pass a background check, and then passed on to someone with a record that would prohibit gun ownership.

"How do you fix that? Unless there's a certainty of punishment" for the buyer, Craig said, it's unlikely. 

Warren, 42, said that beyond wanting background checks to precede every gun sale in America, "we’re interested in red flag laws too because those can help in situations where people are a threat to themselves, not just others."

"That would allow a family member to petition a court, through due process, to temporarily remove weapons from someone who is a threat to themselves or others," for a period of time between two weeks and one year, she said.

"It's not a permanent removal; just until someone gets help," Warren said. 

The focus of Sunday's action was federal legislation, but most of the group's work happens at the state level, Warren said. 

"Michigan's been a tough nut to crack," Warren said. "We've done a lot more on defeating bad bills. We call it losing forward. We do have a gun violence prevention caucus in Michigan, and they are working toward not only a (state) red flag law, but a domestic violence law as well. While we haven't had any big wins in Michigan, we've had a lot of really bad bills, like 'guns everywhere,' defeated."

Warren noted that there are gun owners in the group's membership, which numbers about 5,500 active members in Oakland and Macomb counties. The group got so large that this week it decided to split into county-specific groups, and the Oakland group is about twice as large as its Macomb counterpart, said the 42-year-old Royal Oak resident.

There is a western Wayne County group as well, but none in Detroit. Not yet. 

"We look to our members of guidance, and equity, and diversity, and inclusion," Warren said. "To be frank, we have a lot of white, middle-aged women as volunteers. We don't want to come in as white saviors. We want to provide the tools of our organization (for them to) take ownership of it."