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Michigan to weigh red flag bill after Oxford shooting. Gun groups are furious.

Mike Shirkey
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is catching heat for allowing a hearing on so-called red flag laws that would allow judges to confiscate weapons from those who pose a danger to themselves or others. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is taking heat from gun-rights groups as the top-ranking Republican prepares to hold a public hearing on "red flag" firearm confiscation legislation following last year’s deadly shooting at Oxford High School. 

Senate Democrats reintroduced the legislation Tuesday, adding it to a growing list of proposals they contend could help deter school shootings and other mass murders by limiting access to firearms by potentially dangerous individuals.

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The bills would allow a judge to issue a "extreme risk protection order" authorizing police to seize guns from an individual if there is "reasonable cause" to believe the person poses a risk to themselves or others.

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Shirkey has not backed the legislation and has expressed skepticism about it in the past, but supporters are renewing their push following Nov. 30 murders at Oxford High, where prosecutors allege 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley used a handgun his dad had bought days earlier to kill four classmates and injure others.

State Senate Democrats, who argue the bills could also create an important tool to deter suicides, have pushed similar “red flag” proposals since at least 2019, when Shirkey agreed to hold a hearing on similar bills following mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. 

An initial hearing planned for early 2020 was delayed by emergence of the coronavirus pandemic but is now expected to happen by spring. Supporters and opponents are gearing up for a legislative fight. 

Brenden Boudreau of Great Lakes Gun Rights, a "no-compromise" advocacy group, this week accused Shirkey of "caving to anti-gun demands" by agreeing to hold a hearing on bills that he called "an affront to law-abiding Michiganders."

Rescue Michigan, a conservative advocacy group, called Shirkey "the Democrats' doormat" and is urging other Republicans to oppose what it calls “an unconstitutional ‘pre-crime’ program” that would allow for gun confiscation before actual wrongdoing.

Shirkey has not responded to the critics. He is "making good" on his earlier promise to hold a committee hearing in the Government Operations Committee that he chairs, spokesperson Abby Mitch confirmed this week.  

"And a hearing, what it's supposed to do is air out the pros and cons of the policy,” she told Bridge Michigan.

Shirkey hasn't scheduled the hearing yet, but it'll likely be "soon" — possibly within the next month, said sponsoring Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, whose office is working with Shirkey’s to find a date that works for both.

In conversations with Democrats, the Republican leader has made clear that he is not promising to hold a vote on the legislation, indicating the bills still face an uncertain future in Lansing, Bayer acknowledged. 

But a hearing is an important step to build momentum for the legislation and increase public pressure on Republicans who control both chambers of the state Legislature, she said. 

Bayer pointed to public opinion polling suggesting most Michigan residents favor “red flag” legislation. In 2018, for instance, an EPIC-MRA survey found roughly 70 percent of Michigan voters supported the idea, including 64 percent of Republicans. 

"The people that are loud are this tiny minority that think somehow their rights are being infringed upon," Bayer said, " but the majority of people in this state are responsible gun owners who say, 'Of course, we want that.'"

Bayer and other “red flag” supporters dispute characterizations that the legislation would allow for an unconstitutional seizure of weapons. As of last year, 19 states had some form of “red flag” laws that have survived legal scrutiny, she noted.

Under the Michigan proposal, a family member or partner could file for an extreme risk protection order against an individual they fear could pose a threat to themselves or others. 

A judge would be required to consider any testimony, documents or other evidence before deciding whether to issue an order allowing police to temporarily confiscate a person's weapons. 

The court would have to hold a hearing on the "red flag" order within 14 days, but a gun owner who has a weapon confiscated could request a hearing at any time before then. 

"It really just gives a breathing space," Bayer said. "This is why it has such an impact on suicide. The guns are moved out of that space for a short time until there's a hearing to actually determine whether or not ... this person needs help."

Then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, offered public support for "red flag" gun legislation in 2019. But he backed off plans to release a White House proposal following intense lobbying from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups. 

Critics contend the Michigan legislation would violate an individual’s due process rights. 

It would allow police to “seize real property from innocent Americans” based on “mere accusations,” said Boudreau, president of Great Lakes Gun Rights, who called Shirkey to "stop working with anti-gun members of the Senate who are actively dismantling our gun rights."

"We're absolutely opposed to flag laws and see them as violating many of the bedrock, fundamental beliefs that we have as a nation," Boudreau told Bridge Michigan, saying he thinks similar laws have been abused in other states. 

"People should have the right to due process before constitutional rights are stripped of them."

In Florida, where officials adopted a bipartisan "red flag" policy following a deadly shooting in 2018, the confiscation law was applied more than 3,500 times in the next two years, according to the Associated Press. 

The recent murders at Oxford High School have energized calls for gun reform legislation in Lansing, where Democrats have also proposed bills that would require adults to keep firearms away from children and limit the size of ammunition magazines that could be sold here.

But as Bridge reported in November, partisan gridlock has long stalled action on gun reform Legislation in Michigan. Lawmakers introduced more than 50-related firearms bills in 2021, but none reached the governor’s desk.

While Democrats have proposed universal background check legislation to apply pistol licensing procedures to all firearm purchases, Republicans have sought to eliminate all existing penalties for carrying pistols without a concealed weapons permit or registration.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, last month created a bipartisan School Safety Task Force that will study potential policy solutions to deter "future acts of violence."

But it's not clear if that panel will propose any specific gun reform legislation, let alone any firearm bills capable of advancing through the GOP-led Legislature. 

The task force has spent the past month meeting with various stakeholders and could release an initial set of policy recommendations "soon," co-chair Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville, told Bridge Michigan on Thursday.

Task force members have been meeting with various stakeholders, including Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne, law enforcement officials and parents of children involved in fatal school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

"We've gathered a lot, and we're going to be taking some action soon," Meerman said of the task force. "We're going to be taking some action soon, and it won't be the final action, it'll just be kind of the first steps."

Meerman has indicated that the task force may at least discuss gun control proposals, but he is not sure other Republicans would back any Democratic bills, which would be necessary for them to advance in Lansing.

Even if he and other task force members ultimately embrace reforms, "you gotta consider whether it could get through the (GOP) caucus as well,” Meerman told Bridge.

Shirkey, the Senate Republican leader set to hold a hearing on the “red flag” bills, has urged a cautious approach to legislating in the wake of the Oxford shooting. 

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“If we get obsessed with eliminating all risks, we will then develop and evolve into a country we won’t recognize, because we'll also have no freedoms,” Shirkey said in December. “It's a very narrow road, and it's hard.

While the Oxford murders have increased calls for gun reform, there is no indication that red flag laws would have prevented the tragedy. 

The alleged shooter’s parents face involuntary manslaughter charges for allegations they failed to secure the handgun and ignored a host of warning signs.

But Bayer, the Democratic lawmaker spearheading reform efforts, called the bill and other proposed gun control measures "pieces of a puzzle" that could help address various circumstances that lead to gun violence. 

“It's all about safety,” she said. “It's all about protection.”

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