In wake of Oxford shooting, Slotkin to introduce bill to require safe storage of firearms

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — In the wake of the deadly Oxford school shooting, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin is planning to introduce legislation in Congress requiring the secure storage of firearms in households where children could reasonably access the weapon.

Gun owners who don't secure their firearms could face up to five years in prison if a child does gain access to the weapon and uses it to cause injury to themselves or others or uses it in a crime, according to a bill summary.

"I really wanted the first bill to come out of this tragedy to be based on the sentiment and wishes of the community ... toward changing the law to support responsible gun ownership and preventing access by children," said Slotkin, a Holly Democrat who represents the Oxford area.

A sign in Centennial Park shows support for Oxford High School students and staff after the Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 shooting. A 15-year-old sophomore has been charged as an adult in the shooting at the school that killed four students and injured seven others, including a teacher.

She said she crafted the bill in response to what she heard at vigils and funerals and in talks with law enforcement, parents and teachers in the two weeks since the Nov. 30 rampage at Oxford High School during which a 15-year-old allegedly killed four classmates in the middle of the school day. 

The teen, whose charges include four counts of first-degree murder, allegedly used a 9-millimeter handgun given by his parents as an early Christmas present, which investigators have said was kept in an unlocked drawer at the family home.

Those parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are each facing four counts of involuntary manslaughter, with the prosecutor alleging they had an obligation to do more to prevent the tragedy. The Crumbleys have pleaded not guilty.

Experts say charging adult gun owners in school shooting cases is unusual, and Slotkin wants to change the law to make it easier to hold adults accountable if they "wantonly" allow a child to have access to a weapon and that child commits a crime, she said.

"I believe in deterrence, and if a parent is going to be stupid enough to leave their weapon around with a child who's clearly struggling, they should know that they could pay the consequences," Slotkin said. "And that if a 15-year-old kills other children, it's not just that child — it's that someone has failed that child."

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, addresses a crowd during a candlelight vigil on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in downtown Oxford.

She said the bill text doesn't specify that a weapon be kept in a gun safe or use of a gun lock — secure storage could also be special placement in the home in a way that no child could reasonably have access to it.

About two dozen states have some form of secure storage law, but Michigan is not among them.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has expressed support for a bill in the Legislature by state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, that would require the safe storage of firearms in the presence of children, saying she's hopeful the legislation or something similar will now move in the Legislature in the wake of Oxford because it could "save lives."

Some gun groups have objected to laws requiring safe storage, arguing it could prevent quick access to weapons for use in self-defense. Asked about this, Slotkin said there are ways to have access to a weapon quickly that are also safe from children. 

"I understand that there are people who are going to criticize any and all legislation related to gun safety. And I don't begrudge anybody who legally buys a weapon for their own security and wants quick access to it," she said. "But there are things that change when you have young children in your home."

Nationally, researchers have found evidence that states with stricter laws aimed at holding gun owners responsible for failing to safely store a weapon, are associated with reductions in unintended child and adolescent firearm deaths and suicides.

"We’re finding that these negligent storage laws work, and they matter," Mark Anderson, an associate professor of economics at Montana State University who has done two studies on child access laws, told The Detroit News this month. 

Anderson's latest study, which was just published, was not specific to school shootings but found that these statutes deterred gun homicides by juveniles generally in a period covering nearly three decades, he said.

There's a broad range among the states in terms of child access laws. The strongest, like California's, imposes criminal liability when a child is likely to gain access to an unsecure firearm regardless of whether the minor actually gains access, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Weaker laws bar parents or guardians from directly providing a firearm to a minor.

Slotkin said she's speaking to colleagues of both parties in hoping to find co-sponsors for her legislation.