Michigan lawmakers seek common ground on gun reform

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting

Washington — Two weeks after the killing of 17 at a Florida school, members of Congress are facing sustained pressure to take up gun-reform legislation, but it remains unclear what measures could pass.

“The question is will this be a tipping point? Each time, we hope it will be, and it isn’t,” said longtime U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, a Royal Oak Democrat. “The difference here might just be the involvement of the students. They are committed. They saw tragedy firsthand. I think their utter shock may shock the nation. We’ll see.”

Several Parkland Senior High School students met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week including Reps. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said it’s “very, very realistic” that Congress will act.

“I think you need to look at what the president has put forward as being probably the areas we’ll spend the most significant, productive time in,” Walberg said.

“It will not be just a conversation, but action will come out of it, and I’m certainly willing to be part of the solution.”

President Donald Trump on Wednesday called for swift changes to gun laws and chided Republican lawmakers for being too “afraid” of the National Rifle Association.

Trump backed more mental health resources and raising the age to 21 for purchasing some firearms. He also said law enforcement should be able to confiscate an individual’s weapons without a court order to avoid potential massacres.

Most Michigan lawmakers are likely to support restricting bump stocks and narrow legislation that already passed the House to encourage states and federal agencies to send criminal records to the federal background check database.

But they are split on such proposals as arming teachers, raising the purchase age to 21 for long guns or rifles, and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Reps. Fred Upton, a Republican, and Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, are leading a new bipartisan House task force in response to the Parkland shooting and working with colleagues on several gun-related proposals.

One potential measure is a red-flag bill that would create a hotline for family, friends, local law enforcement and others to report someone whom they believe is a danger to themselves or others.

“We haven’t seen a final draft on this, but this is an area that all of us can agree on,” said U.S. Mike Bishop, a Rochester Republican. “We’ve got to make sure we intervene. Family members and friends who can tip us off to a problem like mental illness. We’ve got to know these people so they can receive the treatment that they need, and so law enforcement knows they cannot own a weapon or a single bullet. It’s just too dangerous.”

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he hopes for a “very open discussion” on a red-flag law to make it easier to take weapons away from unstable individuals after petitioning the court.

“We’ve had too many of these shootings. We should be trying to find some common ground and move them ahead,” Snyder told the Washington Post this week.

Dingell is working on a measure to give the Consumer Safety Product Commission the power to order a recall of defective weapons — oversight it does not have under current law.

Lawrence is pushing for expanded background checks and banning assault weapons — the latter being a non-starter with many Republicans.

“The Republican Party has been the ones who refuse to even bring a bill forward,” Lawrence said. “I don’t understand being afraid of a lobbying organization.”

Arming teachers

Trump has emphasized arming teachers or other school personnel, but the proposal has run into opposition from Democrats and some Republicans. Lawrence called the idea “horrific” and a “logistical nightmare.”

Bishop also said it’s not viable. “There are some people who are not comfortable with a weapon, and it would be wrong to try to impose that responsibility on someone who’s not prepared to handle it or use it,” Bishop said.

Mitchell said such a decision should be a community’s choice and not up to Congress.

“I think it should be enabled if they want to do it,” he said.

Walberg supports the idea if it’s voluntary and a person is willing to take “active-shooter” scenario training.

He said he would consider other “meaningful” gun-related legislation such as improving background checks and grants for schools to add security measures or personnel.

Walberg said Congress ought to be cautious on potentially raising the purchase age for rifles to 21, warning there’s no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to maturity.

Rather than banning AR-15-style rifles like the one used at Parkland, policy-makers should address mental health issues and people circumventing background checks, Walberg said.

Regulating bump stocks

Reps. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, and Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, have called on House leaders to take up their bipartisan bill to regulate bump stocks under the National Firearms Act, similar to the strict controls on machine gun ownership.

Bump stocks are the devices that allowed the Las Vegas gunman last fall to modify his semiautomatic rifles to fire at a rate similar to a machine gun. The devices are not prohibited under federal or Michigan law.

Trump last month asked the Department of Justice to move forward with banning bump stocks, though the ATF has previously said it’s up to Congress to regulate bump stocks and similar devices that are designed to evade regulation under federal law.

Kildee said enacting legislation is better than leaving policy “subject to the whim of an administration.”

“Congress should do this by law. We can’t continue to abdicate our responsibility to the administration,” he said.

Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican representing the Grand Rapids area, doubts that any ban on bump stocks would be effective.

“A bump stock can be created really easily, so if someone wants to do harm maybe they don’t purchase one, but they could sure create one in their garage,” Amash said.

Upton and Trott wrote last week to House Speaker Paul Ryan with 17 other lawmakers urging him to hold a standalone vote on the Fix NICS Act to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by offering incentives to states and agencies to submit more data on criminal histories.

The House passed the NRA-backed bill in December combined with a controversial measure opposed by many Democrats that would allow people with concealed-carry weapons permits in one state to lawfully take their firearms over state lines.

Removing the reciprocity measure would potentially make Fix NICS more likely to pass the Senate, though some lawmakers say the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Michigan’s four Democrats in the U.S. House signed onto a discharge petition to try to force a vote on a bipartisan bill that would bolster background checks and close loopholes that permit gun sales without background checks online and at gun shows.

“Right now, so many weapons can be sold without a background check. We have a system that usually works, but it doesn’t apply universally,” Levin said.

Amash opposed the Fix NICS Act in part because it would prohibit broad classes of people from purchasing guns, even if they’ve never been convicted of a crime, he said.

Individuals added to the database can have their right to purchase a gun permanently denied without judicial oversight, and someone mistakenly added might have to hire an attorney to sue the government, Amash said.

“It is critically important to protect our right to keep and bear arms, and nobody should be denied that right without due process. The bill lacks that,” he said.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, wants to curb “straw purchasers” who buy firearms on behalf of individuals prohibited from purchasing them, which he says is how many guns make their way to criminals in Detroit, Flint and other cities.

“I have consistently supported expanded background checks to help keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them, as well as efforts to close loopholes that allow guns to make their way into the hands of criminals,” Peters said in a statement.

Peters also has co-sponsored legislation to provide the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention with funding for research on firearm safety and gun violence. For more than 20 years, the CDC has been restricted from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” which has discouraged such research.

Some Republicans, such as Bishop, support reopening a funding stream for some gun-related research.

“It cannot ever hurt to have professionals look,” Bishop said. “I think the reason why they don’t want a study is that the proposed solutions potentially won’t comport with what they believe is right or wrong. We have to get past that.”