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Opinion | Oxford inspired me to seek office. MSU must inspire gun reform

On the morning of Dec. 1, 2021, I was in Oxford, where a high school shooting had occurred the previous day, taking the lives of four students and injuring seven others. At the time, I was a reporter for The New York Times and had driven an hour from my hometown of Ann Arbor.

Rep. Jennifer Conlin, D-Ann Arbor, is serving her first term in the Michigan House after a long career in journalism.

That day, for the first time, I saw the look of people who have just been affected by a school shooting. Their eyes were heavy from watching endless images on devices of students running in terror. Their faces were pale from contemplating those killed and the families affected. Their brows were furrowed as they tried to process what happened in their beloved community. 

This past Tuesday, I saw the same look on faces in Lansing, mere hours after a shooter gunned down three students at Michigan State University in East Lansing and critically wounded five others.

The difference is, I am no longer a reporter covering a school shooting; I am now a state representative in just my sixth week in office. This time, I was not rushing to the press conference to take notes as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talked about gun violence being a “uniquely American problem,” but walking to the Capitol building from the Lansing hotel I fled to for shelter after hearing an active shooter was on campus.

In December 2021, as I drove back home from Oxford after two days of covering the shooting, I felt traumatized. I now also knew how gun violence affects an entire community, from the children weeping in their parents’ arms at the candlelight vigil to teenagers being cradled like babies by their teachers in a café. I felt the frustration of the sheriff and the anger of the local prosecutor at the press briefings. All of it made me wish I could affect change beyond detailing the facts of such tragedies as a journalist.

I had never even remotely thought of running for office, but I wanted to be part of the solution to people's concerns over gun safety.

Now, as a state representative, I’ve talked to hunters, gun club members and licensed concealed-carry firearm owners. I told them I did not want to take their guns, I just wanted to enact common-sense legislation, such as “red flag” laws, which would allow someone’s gun to be taken away temporarily if they are deemed dangerous to themselves or others. I told them I am in favor of universal background checks and safe storage laws that can help keep guns out of the hands of children like the one in Oxford who used it on his classmates. 

One 90-year-old woman recalled how her ex-husband had pulled a gun from under their mattress one night and aimed it at her. She was in her 30s and the mother of their five children. Their 6-year-old saved her life by coming into the bedroom and distracting his father. Not everyone agrees with my views, but my constituents were open to conversations on ways we might end this madness of gun violence in our country.

On Monday morning last week, at my first library coffee hour in Hamburg Township, located in the northern part of the district, 40 constituents showed up. Gun reform discussion took up one quarter of our time together — at their insistence, not mine. They wanted to know when the Legislature plans to introduce these bills. Little did we know, within hours, our state would experience our second school shooting within 15 months.

At our first legislative session following the shooting on Wednesday, representatives on both sides of the aisle stood up and told personal stories of losing loved ones to gun violence and suicide. The names of the three students killed — Arielle Anderson, Alexandria Verner, and Brian Fraser — were repeated over and over again, always with an apology for not acting sooner to enact gun reform. In the gallery, MSU students solemnly watched over us, breaking the near silence with clapping whenever a call to action was mentioned. I had the privilege of being seated in between two of the state police officers first on the scene and was able to thank them for their service.

Oxford changed my life’s trajectory. Now in Lansing, I hope to change the lives of others alongside my colleagues. Change must come at the state level, with Legislatures like ours in Michigan leading the path forward. The time to introduce these bills is now… even though it already feels too late.

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