Gun control advocates rally at Michigan Capitol

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — More than 100 gun control advocates rallied Thursday at the Michigan Capitol, urging the state’s Republican-led Legislature to enact new “common sense” regulations after a teen gunman last week killed 17 people at a Florida high school.

Organizers said they want lawmakers to ban assault weapons in Michigan, increase funding for community mental health services, hike school funding for social workers, tighten background check rules and do more to keep guns out of the hands of “extreme risk” individuals.

“It’s a sad place and time in America where you go to school and you have to fear for your life,” said Jake Fales, 18, a senior at Kalamazoo Central High School. “You have to think through this situation of if there’s an active shooter, what am I going to do?”

Fales and fellow Kalamazoo Central senior Julia Kemple, 17, attended the rally after helping organize an online gun control petition that has received 100,000 digital signatures in the past week. Student organizers say they are “fighting guns since adults won’t.”

“We’re not going to make change just sitting at home,” Kemple said. “So we decided to come talk to lawmakers ourselves.”

The rally was organized by Democratic groups, including the state party’s justice caucus, progressive caucus, Young Democrats of Michigan and the Michigan Federation of College Democrats. Speakers included gubernatorial candidates Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed and several Democratic lawmakers.

With school walkouts anticipated in coming weeks, El-Sayed wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder and the State Board of Education asking them to ensure that schools do not suspend or sanction students who speak out.

Inside the Michigan Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive said majority Republicans are beginning new conversations about improving school safety in the wake of the latest mass shooting.

“We’re more focused on what do we have to do to make sure there’s not soft targets – that people are not in harm’s way,” Meekhof said.

“I’m for protecting people’s rights as they are set in the Constitution. That being said, we also have the opportunity and the obligation to make sure when kids go to school they are reasonably safe.”

Nikolas Cruz, 19, confessed to shooting students last week in the hallways and on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, north of Miami. Cruz used an AR-15 rifle and told authorities he carried extra ammunition in his backpack.

The teen gunman had a history of erratic behavior, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has admitted it failed to investigate Cruz after receiving a tip last month that he had a “desire to kill” and had access to guns. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the school shooting a “tragic consequence” of the FBI’s failure and ordered a review of Justice Department processes.

Republican President Donald Trump made headlines this week when he seemed to endorse a longstanding National Rifle Association proposal to arm teachers. He clarified his position Thursday morning, tweeting that he wants to look at the possibility of giving “concealed guns to gun adept teachers with military of special training experience.”

The teachers would be able to “immediately fire back if a save sicko came to a school with bad intentions,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The president said he will also be pushing for more comprehensive background checks of gun buyers with an emphasis on mental health, wants to raise the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, and ban the kind of “bump stock” used to speed the rate of fire on a rifle used in last year’s deadly Las Vegas shooting.

Fellow gun-rights proponent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, also opened the door to new regulations this week, saying he favors raising the purchase age for assault rifles to 21 and is open to restricting the size of ammunition magazines.

Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature has generally moved to loosen state gun restrictions over the past seven years, including a 2015 law that abolished county gun boards to speed up concealed pistol permit processing. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has vetoed more aggressive measures.

House Republicans last year approved a bill that would allow individuals to carry concealed pistols without a permit. The Senate approved a bill in November that would allow someone with extra training to carry a concealed gun in school but close a contested loophole that has allowed openly carried guns in some schools.

Neither bill has made it to the desk of Snyder, who said in 2012 that schools should have the authority to ban guns if they choose.

Michigan Democrats have proposed a series of new gun regulations in the wake of other prominent mass shootings in recent years, but their bills have not advanced.

State Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, last year introduced “extreme risk” legislation that would give family members or law enforcement officers a new ability to ask a court to prohibit a threatening individual from possessing a gun.

Wittenberg and other Democratic colleagues last year also introduced legislation calling for universal background checks in Michigan. The proposal would close what critics call a “gun show loophole” that allows buyers to purchase rifles or shotguns from private sellers without completing a background check. Private pistol purchases require a permit and background check in Michigan.

Meekhof said majority Republicans now talking about school safety have discussed the possibility of armed guards at all Michigan schools but noted it would be costly. There have also been discussions about arming teachers.

“That may or may not be appropriate for individual school districts,” Meekhof said. “But I think the opportunity for folks who want to perpetrate a crime in that sense and look at soft targets, that would deter them if they thought there was some sort of resistance there.”

The Associated Press contributed.