Whitmer signs gun safe storage, background checks; House OKs 'red flag'
- Michigan governor signs two gun reform packages into law
- Safe storage bills would punish owners if kids use guns
- Background check legislation would close long gun loophole
EAST LANSING – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed into law gun safe storage and universal background check legislation, calling the measures a “common sense” approach to deter firearm violence.
The second-term Democrat signed the bills inside Spartan Stadium at Michigan State University, two months to the day after a gunman terrorized the campus, killing three students and injuring five others before killing himself several miles away.
“We see the horrific impact of gun violence playing out every single day,” Whitmer said, citing a series of lower-profile shootings, including the recent death of a 3-year-old in Muskegon.
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“Gun violence is a scourge that is unique to this country, and that is why we are taking action,” the governor said in an emotional speech before more than a hundred gun advocates, many wearing "Moms Demand Action" shirts.
“We don't have to live like this.”
The legislation, under development for years, marks the state’s first significant policy response since the MSU shooting and a Nov. 30, 2021, mass shooting at Oxford High School in Oakland County, where authorities say a 15-year-old killed four classmates and wounded seven people.
Critics note that neither law would have prevented the shooting at MSU, where police say Anthony McRae, 43, passed background checks to purchase two pistols he carried the night of his murder spree. The new law will require the same review for the purchase of rifles and shotguns.
Supporters say the safe storage law, which will require adults to secure firearms in a home where minors are present, may have helped prevent the shooting at Oxford High or given prosecutors additional tools to punish the shooter’s parents, who face four counts of involuntary manslaughter on claims they bought him a gun for his birthday and failed to secure it.
Democrats, who took control of the Michigan House and Senate in January, say the legislation is their first step in an ongoing fight to prevent gun violence.
A third package — which would create a “red flag” law allowing courts to order gun confiscation — was approved later Thursday by Democrats in the Michigan House. A final Senate vote could come as early as next week.
The safe storage and mandatory background check bills "will save lives," said state Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton Township.
"The harsh reality is that no one bill or policy is going to rid our society of this issue. These are hard challenges that will continue to require bold leadership. But the amount of gun violence which exists in our country is a symptom of years of government inaction."
What safe storage laws will do
The new safe storage laws will generally require gun owners in homes with minors to keep weapons in safes or other locked containers, or keep them unloaded with a trigger lock or cable.
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 and a $7,500 fine. If a minor uses the gun to injure someone, the owner could face a five-year felony.
The package will also create a new tax break for the purchase of gun safety devices, which will be exempt from the state’s six percent sales tax when the law takes effect in early 2024.
"Finally, we're changing the law to make sure that kids can't get access to guns and shoot themselves or the people around them,” said sponsoring Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor.
“I have to say, I am sorry that it took us so long to get here.”
Senate Republicans universally opposed the new storage requirements in floor votes last month, with some critics arguing the restrictions could slow a homeowners’ response to an intruder and limit their self-defense capabilities.
“It’s not the role of government to dictate how I store my privately-owned firearm in my privately owned home,” said Sen. Michelle Hoitenga, R-Manton, said in a floor debate. “These policies will only affect law-abiding gun owners.”
The safe storage proposals won support from five Republicans in the House, including Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, who called it a “reasonable” approach to keep guns away from children.
Earlier versions of the safe storage legislation would have also removed blanket legal immunity for gun manufacturers or dealers who make or sell a gun used in the commission of a crime. But those controversial provisions were stripped before the legislation reached Whitmer for signature.
Closing a ‘loophole’ on background checks
The new laws will require background checks for all firearm purchases in Michigan by extending existing rules for pistols, which supporters say will eliminate a “loophole” for private sales of long guns like rifles and shotguns.
Pistol buyers in Michigan must already go through a state or federal background check that is designed to flag crimes or known mental health determinations that could prohibit the purchase.
The new law will generally require background checks for all firearm purchases, not just pistols, and extend existing misdemeanor and felony punishments for those who buy or sell a gun illegally.
Michigan pistol buyers have been required to register new guns with a local law enforcement agency by submitting paperwork after the purchase, a step police say the MSU shooter did not take. Under the new law, the responsibility for pistol registration will shift to the seller instead.
Extending background check rules to long guns will keep them "out of the hands of violent criminals, domestic abusers and people on terrorism watch lists, and no fly lists," Whitmer said Thursday. "Background check also help our law enforcement stay safe on the job and solve crimes."
Republicans universally opposed the background check legislation, arguing the new requirements will primarily impact legal gun owners because criminals are unlikely to comply.
"This may seem like a great idea on paper, but I believe this legislation is an overreach," Rep. Jay DeBoyer, R-Clay Township, said in a floor debate last month.
Democratic lawmakers have also spent weeks debating separate legislation that would allow police to seize guns from people determined by a judge to pose a “significant risk” of using the weapons to harm themselves or others.
But those bills, which would create new “extreme risk protection orders” in Michigan law, have not yet reached Whitmer’s desk amid concerns over constitutional due process rights.
The state House is scheduled to meet later Thursday and could take up a modified version of the legislation that sponsors amended in an attempt to assuage some of those concerns. It passed along party lines, 56-51, with no Republican support.
Among other things, the revised House bills would require “clear and convincing” evidence that a gun owner poses a threat if that individual is not notified or present for an emergency court hearing over a confiscation request.
But in other cases in which the respondent is notified or present at a hearing, only a “preponderance of evidence” would be required.
Democrats contend the legislation would help keep guns away from people who pose a legitimate threat — potentially even the MSU shooter, who police have said appeared to be struggling with mental health issues.
"We will never know if extreme risk protection orders would have prevented the MSU shooter, but we do know he was deeply troubled,” said state Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township. “Simply having (this law) on the books will increase reporting of threatening behavior."
Despite changes, opponents argued the proposal would violate the constitutional rights of gun owners.
“This is nothing short of a gun grab,” said state Rep. Brian BeGole, R- Antrim Township, the former Shiawassee County sheriff.
State Rep. Mike Harris, R- Waterford Township, is a former police officer. He argued the legislation could allow a gun confiscation order based on "flimsy evidence" and create "dangerous" situations for officers responsible for seizing the weapons.
"Red flag laws raise red flags about indispensible due process rights," Harris said.
Senate Democrats passed their own version of the legislation last month over Republican opposition but must now sign off on the modified House version in order to send the plan to Whitmer’s desk.
Senate Democrats passed its own version of the legislation last month over fierce Republican opposition but would have to vote again on the modified House version in order to send the bills to Whitmer’s desk.
The proposals are similar to “red flag” laws in 19 other states, including Florida, where a Republican governor signed the gun confiscation measure in 2018 after a teen gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The Michigan bills would allow certain people — family members, current and ex-spouses, dating partners, police and mental health professionals — to petition a judge for an extreme risk protection order.
Under one bill set for a final vote in the Senate, an individual requesting an extreme protection order could file that court request in any county of the state, regardless of where the gun owner lives or works
The judge would then have up to 24 hours to determine whether the gun owner poses an imminent risk to themselves or others before ordering police to notify the individual and give them 24 hours to surrender the weapons prior to confiscation.
“This is not about taking away anyone's guns...,” said House Judiciary Committee Chair Kelly Breen, D-Novi. “It is a tool for law enforcement to intervene before something terrible happens. “
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