After Oxford, Michigan Democrats see gun safety as part of school agenda
A school safety task force formed in response to the deadly 2021 Oxford High School shooting didn’t include any gun control measures in its final recommendations to the Legislature. But that doesn’t mean they’re off the table.
After sweeping Michigan’s statewide races again and capturing a majority in the state House and Senate, Democrats have control over the legislative agenda that they haven’t had since the 1980s. One of their top priorities is gun control, and they’re looking to move quickly while they’re still in power and while memories of the Oxford shooting are still fresh.
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“The political will is here to get (gun control) done, and we will not shy away from this issue,” said state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, the Democratic floor leader from Hamtramck.
“We appreciate the work the task force did in the last term,” Aiyash said. “They highlighted some important and necessary steps, but one of the obvious and necessary pieces that wasn’t addressed is responsible firearm policies.”
The bipartisan House School Safety Task Force issued initial recommendations in April 2022, and released its final report just before Christmas. Gun control measures came up repeatedly during the group’s meetings, but were not a focus, because the members — four Republicans and four Democrats — knew they couldn’t build consensus around them.
“We agreed from the get-go that we would proceed only on the things we could all get on board with, and there were members refusing to deal with guns,” said task force member Kelly Breen, a Democrat from Novi who represents a region southeast of Oxford. “It was incredibly frustrating.”
Republicans on the panel said they, too, gave up some of their priorities. “Frankly, I would like to see more adults in the schools with firearms, but that was not part of our report either,” said state Rep. Luke Meerman, the Coopersville Republican who led the task force along with state Rep. Scott VanSingel of Grant, who left office in December.
The task force members found agreement, though, around $486 million worth of recommendations that center around improving student mental health and fortifying school buildings against intruders.
Aiyash, who was not a member of the task force, said those steps aren’t enough.
“We can’t address all of those things and then ignore the fact that gun violence is what’s inflicting the deaths, and the murders, and the accidental injuries, and suicides, and homicides that happen,” he said. “Guns are the common denominator.”
Aiyash said he wants to protect the rights of responsible gun owners while restricting access for people who may commit violence with them, such as people who have been convicted of domestic violence. He knows that negotiating over gun control won’t be easy, especially with the Democrats’ slim 56-54 majority over Republicans, who largely oppose any restrictions on firearm ownership.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she would prioritize gun control as she begins her second term.
Democrats haven’t introduced any bills yet, but their efforts are likely to revolve around safe storage, expanded background checks, and red-flag laws that permit courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from people believed to be an immediate threat to themselves or others.
Republicans largely oppose those efforts, “but we no longer hold the gavel,” Meerman said.
Then-House Speaker Jason Wentworth established the task force last year in response to the Oxford High School incident, in which a 15-year-old student shot and killed four other students with a gun his parents bought for him, and injured seven other people. Members were asked to identify ways to make schools safer and to improve student mental health.
They based their work around the Michigan State Police 2018 School Safety Task Force. In the preliminary recommendations they issued last April, they came to a consensus around 14 measures, but only a few made it into law — either as standalone bills or measures incorporated into the state budget. Those measures were working their way through the Legislature before the task force’s final report was issued.
One law requires school districts to provide local police accurate floor plans of school buildings, including room names, hallway designations, and locations of keys.
Another legalizes the use of temporary door barricades during school emergencies.
Meanwhile, the 2023 budget invests more than $200 million to increase mental health services in schools, which also was among the task force’s recommendations.
Meerman and Breen said they are disappointed that more of the task force’s April recommendations weren’t enacted, such as:
- Establishing a grant program to support paid internships for graduate students working toward certification to become school psychologists, counselors, or social workers.
- Requiring districts to update school safety plans every three years.
- Requiring the Michigan State Police to help schools develop lockdown guidelines.
- Requiring districts to print OK2SAY information on student identification cards. OK2SAY is Michigan’s confidential tip line for reporting threats to school safety.
- Requiring additional school safety drills.
- Installing cameras in classrooms.
- Ensuring all doors have locks.
- Providing window ladders for rooms on upper levels.
“I’m frustrated that we didn’t get those across the finish line last year,” Meerman said.
He and Breen expect those measures to be reintroduced this year. They expect the task force to continue its work with new members being appointed to replace the five no longer in office.
“Even if all of them pass, it doesn’t mean our schools are safe,” Meerman said. “It means they’re safer. It means we have to take the next steps. We live in an ever-changing world. For anybody to say, ‘Now we fixed it and let’s move on to the next thing’ is a fallacy, and it’s dangerous.”
Correction: January 9, 2022: This story as been updated to clarify that Rep. Kelly Breen’s district does not include Oxford.
Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Bridge Michigan and Chalkbeat Detroit. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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