Democratic gun safety laws met with a shrug in Michigan gun country
- Permits to carry a concealed pistol license in Michigan jumped 86 percent in nine years
- One in six adults have a CPL in some northeast Michigan counties
- CPL holders expressed support for some new gun measures, including universal background checks
MONTMORENCY COUNTY — Deb Comoford used to carry a Smith and Wesson 40-caliber pistol in her purse whenever she left her home in rural Montmorency County; until she received a smaller, lighter 9 mm Sig Sauer for Christmas.
Chris Gleeson typically has his .45 caliber semiautomatic in a shoulder holster under his jacket when he’s out running errands in Lewiston. It’s a small town where he knows most of the people, but “you never know.”
Tony Escareno doesn’t pack his handgun all the time in Harrisville, population 437, but “If I’m going to get in my truck and go to Home Depot in Alpena (population 10,000), you better believe I’ll be carrying.”
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They’re among a rapidly growing number of Michiganders carrying handguns. The number of concealed pistol licenses jumped 86 percent in nine years, from 430,000 in 2014 to 799,000 this month.
Across the state, more than one in 10 adults age 21 or older currently have a concealed pistol license (CPL). The rate is even higher in a stretch of seven counties roughly along the 45th parallel — from Kalkaska County near Lake Michigan to Alcona County along the Lake Huron shore — where at least 15 percent of adults have a license to carry a concealed handgun.
Three hours south in the state capitol in Lansing, newly empowered Democratic legislators have passed or are in the process of passing a trio of gun safety measures, including universal background checks and secure storage and red flag laws. The bills have sparked an uproar from the National Rifle Association and some in the GOP. This week, the Michigan Republican Party, likened the gun measures to actions taken by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
But in interviews with 10 pistol owners here in Michigan’s gun belt, the measures are met with surprisingly little resistance, and in some cases, support. Mass shootings at Oxford High School and Michigan State University convinced some that gun reforms are worth a shot. And they say they worry about gun violence, too — it’s why they try to protect themselves with guns of their own.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Comoford, a lifelong resident of Montmorency. “I don’t know if it (the gun measures) will do what they think it will. We all think something more needs to be done. We just don’t know what.”
To outsiders, Montmorency County appears to be a forest interrupted by a handful of roads and villages. The county seat, Atlanta, has a population of 700 and a town square where hunters hang elk on the first day of hunting season. There are no traffic signals in the entire county, and the closest McDonald’s is a more than 30-minute drive.
Comoford is a waitress and bartender at Redwood Steak House in Lewiston, where there are dartboards on the wall and a TV playing RFD-TV, a cable channel focused on rural America.
Guns aren’t allowed in the restaurant, but she knows a lot of her neighbors are like her and typically have a weapon on them when they leave the house.
“We get called rednecks a lot; that we all want to just go out and shoot everything up,” Comorford said. “That’s the misconception. Most of us are so responsible (with guns). Shooting somebody is our worst fear.”
Comoford has had a concealed carry permit since 2008, when she worried about leaving the restaurant and bar late at night by herself.
“The crime was going up … and I live six miles out of town,” she told Bridge Michigan. “It could take police 20 minutes to get to my house if something happened.”
Having a handgun in her purse “just gives you security,” Comoford said. “I hope I don't ever have to use it, but I'd like to be able to if I need it.”
Fear of crime was pervasive among gun owners who spoke to Bridge, even in a region with a low crime rate.
In Montmorency County, for instance, there were six violent crimes reported in all of 2020, a rate that’s seven times lower than for the state (64 violent crimes per 100,000 people in Montmorency, compared to 478 per 100,000 across the state).
“It's not that crime is high up here,” said Gleeson, who owns and operates a Locked & Loaded Gun Class which offers safety training for people looking to qualify for concealed carry permits. “But we’re getting a lot more drug users, and that scares people. The majority of my students, they’re afraid they’ll be the next victim.
“For now it's peaceful here. But you can't predict when it's gonna happen.”
Gleeson, 52, said people who take his classes often include new gun owners who have bought handguns because of crime and violence they see on social media and in the news.
Two of those new gun owners are Todd and Donna Dangler of Lewiston. The couple each bought a handgun two years ago and have licenses to conceal carry. While they don’t take the guns out of their home, they like having the option, Todd Dangler said.
“A lot of people look at it and say, “Why did you waste your time?’ But I like having that option,” he said. “The way the world is going down the toilet, you want to be prepared in case things go screwy.”
More concealed guns
Brian Begole, the former sheriff in Shiawassee County, between Lansing and Flint, and now a Republican state representative, said he’s not surprised by the dramatic increase in licenses to carry a concealed handgun, a trend he attributes to politics and crime.
“Statistically, whenever you have a Democratic president, you see people make a dash to get guns, because there’s a perception Dems are opposed to gun ownership, and they figure they may not be able to get them,” Begole said. “Another reason is police (employment) levels are lower than they used to be. People have a belief that if they call police, there will be a delay and they’ll have to protect themselves until police arrive.
“People don’t feel safe,” Begole said. “Seeing those (Black Lives Matter) riots and illegal behaviors make it so people want to go out and get a gun so they feel safe.”
Also likely a contributing factor: concealed carry licenses became easier to obtain in 2012, when the state tweaked the CPL law to eliminate county CPL boards and instead have the licenses administered by county clerks, which sped the approval process.
All Michigan counties have experienced an increase in concealed carry permits since 2014. In Northeast Michigan, there has been an 80 percent jump despite the population declining.
Three west Michigan counties more than doubled the number of residents with concealed carry licenses in the past nine years — Ottawa jumped 153 percent, Kent, 147 percent, and Muskegon, 105 percent.
Macomb County rose 102 percent.
Begole said people who haven’t grown up around guns have a misconception about who the typical gun owner is. “They think of a news film of someone with an AR-15 at the Capitol,” which happened in 2020 at a rally protesting COVID lockdown measures. Two people who were carrying long guns at the Capitol that day were later arrested for allegedly being involved in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Brothers William and Michael Null are awaiting trial in Antrim County.
In reality, “most people have guns in their homes just simply for home protection,” Begole said.
But mass shootings at Oxford High School in 2021 and at MSU in February added urgency to Democratic efforts to push gun safety efforts.
One set of bills passed by the Legislature last week would require background checks for all gun purchases. Currently, background checks are performed only for those buying handguns, or buying long guns such as rifles and shotguns at licensed dealers. The proposed law would require background checks for people buying long guns from private individuals.
The bill passed the House and Senate and is awaiting an expected signature from Whitmer, the Democratic governor.
Republicans in Lansing were opposed to the bill as well as other gun safety bills, though polls have shown support for increased gun restrictions, including a national poll of gun owners.
Gleeson said he and most of his students in CPL classes in Montmorency County support expanded background checks.
“We’ve got to have universal” background checks, Gleeson said. “Some people fall into this belief that the government is going to take everybody's guns. I don't honestly believe that. I believe the government is there to make sure the right people get guns and the right people don't get guns.
“We're trying to prevent … another Oxford.”
Tony Escareno, owner of Sunrise Firearms and Tactical Equipment in Harrisville, said he also supports expanded background checks. “As long as they're doing their proper steps to keep the guns in the right hands and not the wrong hands. I'm 100 percent (in favor),” he said.
Harrisville is a tiny community in sparsely populated Alcona County. The population balloons in the summer as tourists and people with second homes flock to the Huron lakeside.
On a late March afternoon when a Bridge Michigan reporter visited his shop, though, many of the businesses were shuttered and the streets barren except for a few pickup trucks.
But Escareno said he sold three handguns a day earlier.
“A lot of my customers are outdoorsmen, but probably 50 percent are first-time buyers,” Escareno said. “There are Republicans, Democrats, 90 years old to just turning 21. They’re getting a handgun for their own protection.”
Escareno said the vast majority of handgun buyers in his shop take safety very seriously, and don’t have an issue with new regulations.
He said he’s familiar with legislation that’s passed the Senate and is still being considered in the House to create “red-flag law,” which would authorize the temporary seizure of guns from those deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Nineteen states have red flag laws.
There is little research yet to measure if such laws save lives. Still, Escareno has no problem with a law that could take guns away from people who could be dangerous.
“You gotta be honest with each other, they put a red flag in for a reason,” he said. “You 100 percent need to make sure that … guns do not get in the wrong hands.”
Escareno was less enthusiastic about a safe storage bill that passed the House and Senate and is awaiting Whitmer’s signature.
The bill would require gun owners to keep weapons locked or unloaded around minor children. If an owner fails to properly store a gun, and that gun is used by a minor to kill themselves or others, the owner could be charged with a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“There is no way shape or form you need to come into my home to make sure my guns here are safe,” Escareno said. “That’s my job.”
Craig Johnston, a Republican county commissioner in Alcona County, said he is unruffled by the current fight over gun policies. The fifth-generation farmer has a concealed carry permit, which he says he got because the CPL trainer is a friend who buys hay from him. The class was useful, Johnston said, but he doesn’t carry his handgun around.
At least 53 mostly rural counties, including all of northeast Michigan, have adopted resolutions to declare themselves a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” in response to proposed or feared gun control efforts. The resolutions are not legally binding since county commissioners can’t direct sheriffs or judges on what laws to enforce, but signal a protest among politicians in primarily Republican-dominated counties against laws that could restrain gun ownership.
Among those counties is Alcona, where Johnston was chair of the county commissioners when the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution passed in 2020.
Johnson said the resolution was a statement people in his county wanted to make, but he had assurances from the prosecutor and the sheriff that they would uphold state and federal law.
Some people look at gun owners as “these crazy rednecks who want to change the world,” Johnston said. “It's not that at all.”
For example, Johnston said, he’s a Republican official but he’s in favor of red flag laws. “If someone has mental problems, I don’t think they should have a gun,” he said.
“There’s a big middle ground between the loudest on both sides,” Johnston said. “Most people are reasonable on both sides.”
Back at Redwood Steak House, Comoford said she’s fine with politicians’ attempts to stop the next Oxford or MSU shooting, or the thousands of less-publicized gun crimes committed in Michigan every year. Until she sees proof those efforts work, though, she’ll keep her 9 mm in her purse.
“If someone wants to do something, they're gonna be able to find a gun,” she said. “It’s not going to stop.”
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