Michigan gun debate heats up after Ohio, Texas mass shootings

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Twenty-nine people were killed in two mass shootings in America this weekend: 20 slain at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, and 9 in Dayton, Ohio, along with dozens of others injured by gunfire.

That same stretch of time saw at least nine people shot in Detroit, three of them fatally, in shootings scattered through the city.

In the aftermath of the violence, activists told different stories about gun ownership and what it represents.

People attend a vigil for victims of the shooting Saturday, in El Paso, Texas.

Andrew Patrick, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, founded in 1974, said the mass shootings are part of a "public health crisis" in America concerning gun violence.

When the organization was founded it was called the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, and focused on handgun violence specifically. That changed in 1989 after a shooting in Stockton, California in which 5 kids were killed and 30 wounded at an elementary school with an AK-47.

On Sunday, Patrick's focus was on what he called the "high-powered semi-automatic assault rifles" used in both attacks.

"They're intended to kill as many people in as short an amount of time as possible, and that's why they're chosen by these shooters," Patrick said. "They're the official gun of mass shootings."

Patrick criticized political leaders, from Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to Republican U.S. President Donald Trump, for a lack of action in Washington, D.C., to ban such weapons.

"Tweeting 'God Bless El Paso' is not going to work," Patrick said, referring to a tweet by President Donald Trump on Sunday morning, offering blessings to both cities affected by the mass shootings.

Those remarks were echoed by the Michigan Democratic Party on Twitter. Taking issue with a tweet where Trump called the El Paso shooting "not only tragic, but an act of cowardice," the Dems wrote that the shooting was "an act of terrorism by a white nationalist terrorist.

"@realDonaldTrump, you are the coward," the tweet read.

The Archdiocese of Detroit weighed in on Sunday, calling for an end to "unthinkably common acts of gun violence."

"We went to sleep grieving for those touched by horror in El Paso, Texas, and woke today to yet more tragedy in Dayton, Ohio," said Archbishop Allen Vigneron on social media. "I join with my brother bishops around the country in an urgent call to unite our prayers with demands for action to rid our society of these evil and unthinkably common acts of gun violence."

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued two statements in less than 24 hours in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton.

"We extend our condolences to the families and friends of those murdered in Dayton last night," it said in a statement Sunday. "The lives lost this weekend confront us with a terrible truth. We can never again believe that mass shootings are an isolated exception. They are an epidemic against life that we must, in justice, face. God’s mercy and wisdom compel us to move toward preventative action."

A day earlier, the conference issued a statement saying "something remains fundamental evil in our society." 

“This Saturday, less than week after the horrific instances of gun violence in California, yet another terrible, senseless and inhumane shooting took place, this time at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas.

"Something remains fundamentally evil in our society when locations where people congregate to engage in the everyday activities of life can, without warning, become scenes of violence and contempt for human life. The plague that gun violence has become continues unchecked and spreads across our country. 

"Things must change. Once again, we call for effective legislation that addresses why these unimaginable and repeated occurrences of murderous gun violence continue to take place in our communities. As people of faith, we continue to pray for all the victims, and for healing in all these stricken communities. But action is also needed to end these abhorrent acts.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat and the state's top law enforcement officer, wrote on Twitter that "it's time" for state lawmakers to "create better gun laws I can enforce to protect our state residents from senseless acts of gun violence."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, meanwhile, wrote that "gun violence is a public health crisis in our country, and we need to come together and take action to make sure firearms don’t end up in the hands of someone who wants to hurt themselves or others."

Detroit-based firearms instructor Rick Ector, 51, has "lost count" by now of how many people he has trained in his almost 15 years giving lessons on how to get concealed carry weapons permits.

In May, a free training class for women drew a crowd of 800, and he hopes to top that by bringing out 1,000 women at once for training someday. His affinity for guns and appreciation for gun safety started about 15 years ago when he was robbed at gunpoint in his own driveway.

Ector, owner of Rick's Firearm Academy of Detroit, noted that in the El Paso shooting, the alleged gunman surrendered at the first sight of opposition in the form of armed police officers who arrived about six minutes after he started shooting. 

"As soon as the first gun was pointed at him, he gave up," Ector said. 

But by that point 20 people had been killed. They were targeted, police believe, because of the alleged shooter's animus toward Hispanics. 

Ector said he carries a weapon everywhere he's legally allowed to do so, but hopes he never has to use it.

"I have no desire to be a hero. But no one has as vested an interest in your safety as you do," Ector said. "I strongly encourage people to take an active role in their own projection."

Thousands of Metro Detroiters have just done that, at Ector's instruction, over the years.

Some of them, afterward, have had to use their guns and call on their training to protect themselves.

It's not a joyful experience, he warns.

"None of them has said they were happy to do that, or happy to be placed in that position," Ector said. "But it beats the alternative."

While taking special care to not criticize the police, Ector noted that with even just a few minutes before officers arrived, a shooter in a population-dense environment can inflict many casualties.

Ector said that if faced with a mass-shooting situation, he would be armed, and would ensure his safety and that of his family first. Only then would he engage the gunman.

"But there are no guarantees" of safety provided by gun ownership or possession, he notes. Still, he says, "I'd rather have a chance than no chance."

"There are some people who are not good people," Ector said. "They exist, they've always existed, and will continue to exist. It doesn't matter who you are, or if you're a good person or not."

Linda Brundage of East Lansing is executive director of the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. She said the two mass shootings Saturday have the coalition's membership split, between those "so angry they're spitting tacks" and others "really in the dumps and full of tears" after violent incidents viewed as "preventable."

The view from Michigan

According to numbers from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, there were 417 gun homicides in Michigan in 2017, the last year for which numbers are available.

Of Michigan's 83 counties, 54 did not have a single gun homicide, and of the remaining 29, 10 only had one, meaning that only 19 of 83 counties had more than one person shot fatally the entire year, let alone all at once. 

And according to Michigan State Police data, there were 550 victims of non-negligent manslaughter in Michigan in 2018. Seventy two percent of homicide victims died via gunfire — 26 died by what police describe as an "automatic" weapon, whether a firearm, handgun or rifle. 

Mike Thiede, a trustee of Michigan Gun Owners Inc., said that most gun owners in Michigan use their weapons for hunting or recreation, not for violence against other human beings.

"What is the average gun owner's purpose for using a gun? It's not, for the average person, to go into the public and shoot up people, it's to have recreational use of that firearm and for personal protection," Thiede said.

Brundage referred to mass shootings as "the top of the iceberg," stressing that there are "many, many more gun deaths in our country" that are either suicides or violence not taking place at the mass level. Those deaths count too, she said.

"We continue to work in the issue, but in the name of all in America," Brundage said. "It's not 'if' it will happen, but when and where."

"What are our legislators doing?" Brundage asked. "We have the people. But sometimes you wonder what the people can do to move the legislators, if they're in the pocket of the gun lobby."

A comprehensive look at gun laws in Michigan was prepared in April 2018 by the Legislative Service Bureau. 

Gun violence in Detroit is more scattered; 9 shot, 3 die

Gun violence in Michigan's largest city, Detroit, can take on a different character than mass shootings that make national headlines.

While eye-popping shooting numbers do sometimes take place in Detroit, such as when 11 people were shot, 2 fatally, over the Fourth of July, or when seven people were shot overnight into Sunday last week, those tend to take place over multiple crime scenes.

A recent outlier came in June 2015, 12 people were shot, 1 fatally, at a block party on Detroit's west side. That mass shooting was overshadowed nationally by a mass shooting earlier that week in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine churchgoers.

On Saturday alone, Detroit saw at least six shooting incidents, seven victims, and two homicides. Add in a homicide early Sunday morning and that's eight scenes, nine victims, and three homicides. 

Both fatal shootings Saturday took place in the 7 p.m. hour, and both on the city's west side. Both involved fights or arguments.

At  7 p.m., on the 3200 block of Gladstone — south of Joy Road, west of Linwood — two men in their early 30s argued.

One of them, 32, pulled a gun and started firing shots, hitting the 31-year-old victim multiple times before fleeing in a blue 2010 Chevy Malibu. 

The victim died at the scene, but police caught up to the suspect and made a quick arrest.

Just 20 minutes later, at Rouge Park, in the area of Plymouth and Burt Road, "an altercation occurred between two individuals," police said in a statement. Then, four or five "unknown suspects" started firing shots, striking a 29-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman.

Medics transported both victims, but the woman died from her injuries. 

The suspects fled, except for a 27-year-old man who was arrested. 

Sunday morning, an 18-year-old man was gunned down in a basement on the city's east side. The shooting took place about 1:34 a.m. on the 2100 block of Bryantston Crescent, which is south of East Vernor and west of Chene. The shooting took place under what police describe as "unknown" circumstances.

Police say the victim was with two other people when he was shot, but aren't sure how it happened. Medics pronounced him dead at the scene.