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Few issues these days are divisive as guns, and Democrats in Michigan’s race for governor are beginning to challenge each other’s bona fides on the litmus test issue.
Presumed frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer came under attack last week from challenger Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who accused her failing to “talk about an assault weapons ban” and ignoring school shootings.
El-Sayed is trying to outflank Whitmer on the left by calling for an all-out prohibition on AR-15s and similar weapons.
It’s true Whitmer hasn’t been vocal about a ban during her campaign, touting other reforms instead. But El-Sayed’s assertion is mostly inaccurate because Whitmer has spoken in favor of banning assault weapons for years, says she hasn’t changed her position, and was a featured speaker at the Lansing March for Our Lives rally for gun control.
“Why won't Gretchen Whitmer - the establishment's pick for governor - talk about an assault weapons ban? Didn't she see the same pictures coming out of Parkland? And Sandy Hook? And every other school shooting since Columbine? And how about those kids this weekend, who marched across this country with courage and determination - do they mean anything?”
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El-Sayed, the city of Detroit’s former health director, calls for a ban on “military-style assault weapons like the AR-15” on his website. His campaign has released an ad on social media in March blasting Whitmer for not doing do the same.
El-Sayed campaign spokesman, Adam Joseph, said the silence extends to Whitmer’s public statements and social media since Feb. 14, when a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“A clear stance on supporting (or not supporting) an (assault weapons ban) at this point seems like a common sense thing public officials running for high office must address,” Joseph wrote in an email to Bridge.
“It is clearly part of the national discussion.”
Asked by WJIM-1240 AM host Steve Gruber on March 4 if she would curtail the sale of semi-automatic weapons, Whitmer responded: “That’s exactly one of the kinds of questions that polarizes everyone and stops us from having real thoughtful conversation about gun safety, which is where conversation needs to be headed.”
But Whitmer hasn’t been silent on guns. In fact, she spoke for 7 minutes on the state Capitol steps on March 24 during the March for Our Lives rally.
Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader, called for several reforms, including better background checks, improved waiting lists and so-called red flag bills to allow families and police to petition judges to remove guns from those with mental problems. The speech included a passing reference to prohibitions on assault weapons.
“We refuse to stand silently by. Let them hear you,” Whitmer told the crowd during one of hundreds of rallies nationwide in response to the Parkland shootings.
“We are seeing veterans who served our country and carried deadly weapons. They protected our country, and now they are coming together and saying ‘These weapons have no purpose on our streets.’”
Whitmer gained national attention in 2012 for a guest column she wrote for the Huffington Post after a gunman killed 26 children and himself at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
“We must begin by enacting the common sense reforms that keep assault rifles, weapons designed for the sole purpose of mass killings, off the market and ensure that those with a history of mental illness do not have access to guns,” Whitmer wrote in the essay titled “A Message to NRA President Wayne LaPierre: How Dare You?”
Whitmer also called for a ban on assault weapons in an op-ed published the following year in the Lansing State Journal, that called for “reforms that keep assault weapons… off the market.”
Whitmer’s campaign literature when she ran for the state House in 2000 cited the school shootings in Columbine in calling for laws to limit access to assault weapons to children. And when she was in the Legislature in the 2000s, she consistently earned ‘F’ ratings from the National Rifle Association.
“She’s made her position very well known for a very long time,” said Annie Ellison, Whitmer’s campaign spokeswoman.
“She wants to get assault weapons off the street. There is no need for assault rifles on the market.”
Joseph said Whitmer hasn’t voiced those positions lately, and speculated that she believes doing so would hurt her in the general election.
“Voters don't care about what was in a blog post in 2012,” Joseph said. “They want to know that their public servants are willing to lead on this issue and make it a priority right now.”
While it’s clear that Whitmer hasn’t been as outspoken about assault weapons during this campaign as El-Sayed, her views on them are available to anyone who as access to Google.
Contacted by Bridge Magazine on Monday, Whitmer’s campaign reiterated that she favors an assault weapons ban. Failing to repeat the position in recent weeks doesn’t negate it, Ellison said.
“She’s been a leading progressive voice on this issue for years,” she said.
El-Sayed’s online criticism went further, implying that Whitmer, the mother of two teenage girls, failed to see violent images of three notorious school shootings and ignored the movement they caused.
After each shooting, though, Whitmer spoke out forcefully for gun reform. And two days before El-Sayed’s criticism, she was lending her voice to the nationwide movement to stop school shootings.
Afternoon update: Both El-Sayed and Whitmer continued to feud over the issue.
And Whitmer's response
As a mom with two kids in the public schools and a legislator that advocated for banning assault rifles, I refuse to let bullies distort my record. If you have Google, you can easily see that since the start of my career I've been fighting to keep us safe. https://t.co/34ETHk0Zr0— Gretchen Whitmer (@gretchenwhitmer) April 4, 2018