Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children in America. The recent tragedy at Michigan State University has only further highlighted the need for serious gun safety reforms –reforms that the GOP majority had been blocking in Michigan for decades. We asked Michigan Senate Leader Winnie Brinks and three other women serving in the Virginia, Nevada, and Georgia legislatures what commonsense gun safety reforms could help keep their communities safe.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Winnie Brinks, State Senator for Michigan’s 29th Senate District, Michigan Senate Majority Leader: This really hit home for me. I have a daughter who is a student at Michigan State University and she was at her home during this incident sheltering in place and hoping for the best. So, it really brought home the experience of tens of thousands of other parents.
We’ve been working on policy on this topic for the better part of ten years. We have a gun violence prevention caucus and they had prepared bill packages session after session after session and they always went completely unheard by the Republican majority. So this year, there’s a new Democratic trifecta and that means these bills have a chance. We already had bills almost ready for introduction before the horrific incident at MSU, but we have moved those very quickly and introduced bills on safe storage, on universal background checks, and on extreme risk protection orders.
We are very anxious to move on this and we are open to having Republican support. We’re hopeful that we’ll see at least a few Republicans who join us in taking a stand on gun violence and against the NRA. And, importantly, admitting that we have an opportunity to make a difference, rather than have them throw up their hands and say, “This won’t help anyway, let’s just do nothing.” Our kids deserve better. Our kids deserve a safe community to grow up in, rather than more drills that train them on how to live in an unsafe environment. So, we’re very excited to have this opportunity to actually move these bills this time but it’s just incredibly sad that it’s taking an incident like this to help people understand the impact of gun violence.
Dr. Mamie Locke, State Senator for Virginia’s 2nd Senate District, Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus Chair: In 2020, we were able to pass a package of sensible gun legislation, including a red flag law, a gun ban on public property, and a reinstatement of the one gun a month limit. We also had a package of sensible gun legislation this year, all of which died in the Republican House on the same day that a murder took place one block from the Capitol. There was one on safe storage, an assault weapons ban, and ghost guns, all of which passed the Senate, but absolutely no hearing, no conversation in the House of Delegates on any of those pieces of legislation.
Dr. Jasmine Clark, State Representative for Georgia’s 108th House District: Here in Georgia, we have several bills very similar to the ones ya’ll have described: universal background checks, pediatric safe storage, requiring people have some type of training before they get a concealed carry license. These are all things that do not exist in Georgia right now.
But unfortunately, when a Democrat says the word “gun” it’s almost like you said a curse word on the floor. Everyone’s like, oh no, you can’t say the G word! And it’s unfortunate because, as we know, gun violence is the number one cause of death for children and teens right now. If we can’t agree on gun policy, can we at least agree that we need to do all that we can to protect our children. But, it’s almost like a non-starter.
We’ve tried everything. We’ve tried reframing. We’ve tried adding amendments to their gun bills. But, our governor is going in the opposite direction. Now, he’s passed what’s referred to as permitless carry, where you no longer have to have a permit in order to conceal carry in public and absolutely no training is required.
So, what you’re saying is, let’s just let anybody go buy a gun. There is no waiting period. Take that gun and walk over to Subway, and order a sandwich, and if the person doesn’t get their order right, they now have a firearm and a temper. That’s not a hypothetical – these are things that are actually happening. We’ve had people shooting other people because they put mayonnaise on their sub sandwiches. We’ve got road rage incidents. We have children shooting other children, whether by mistake or on purpose. We have four year olds finding guns under the seat because it’s not safely stored, and they’re shooting themselves. They’re shooting their siblings. They’re shooting some random person. That’s something we can prevent but it really does take political will, and unfortunately, right now in Georgia, the political will is not there.
But, we are chipping away at their majority a little bit at a time. And, eventually we’re going to get to that point where they have to get rid of some of their more radical stances on things that are just common sense. I truly hope that guns are one of those things that they will finally say, we’ll at least make sure that guns aren’t in the hands of four-year-olds.
Sandra Jauregui, State Assemblymember for Nevada’s 41st Assembly District, Nevada Assembly Majority Leader: This is an issue that is near and dear to me. I attended the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival the night that gunman opened fire and killed 58 people and wounded hundreds of others. It was the largest mass shooting in modern American history. And I can tell you for the longest time, I could not come out and speak about having survived that incident because it was just too traumatic for me. And I was already an elected legislator at that time.
It wasn’t until Parkland happened that next year in 2018 that I realized that I had survived something that was so traumatic and I could barely deal with it – I couldn’t accept that these young high school students were having to deal with the same, and so I decided that I’m just going to get out on the forefront of this issue. I’m in a unique position. I’m an elected official who can actually do something about this by telling my story, and so no matter how traumatic it was, I decided that I would tell this story as often as I need to in order to get stuff accomplished in our state.
We were so lucky that in 2018, we elected our first Democratic governor in almost 30 years, so it was the first time we could actually act on any gun legislation. The very first bill we passed was universal background checks. I passed Assembly Bill 291, which banned bump stocks and any other future technology that may turn a gun into an automatic weapon. I reduced the blood alcohol content that you can have present while in possession of a firearm. We passed red flag laws. Then, the next legislative session, we banned ghost guns and ghost gun kits.
This year, what we send to the new Republican governor will look a little bit different. But, I’m still going to make sure this community has a voice. I’m going to make sure we work on this issue, because the reality is there are so many communities that are behind us – this isn’t a red versus blue issue; this is an American issue. And, I’ll tell you this – gun violence doesn’t just effect the survivors and the victims. It impacts the families. It impacts the communities. Everyone is impacted by gun violence and so this year, I’m working on two measures, one to raise the assault weapons age from 18 to 21 to purchase, the other, banning firearms at election sites. Not only do we need to protect our communities from gun violence, but we need to make sure everyone can access their right for their voice to be heard in a safe manner.
Virginia Senator Locke: We had two mass shootings, one at the University of Virginia and one at a Walmart in Chesapeake, and when the governor spoke on both of those incidents, not once did he mention the word “gun.” Not once. Recently a six-year-old shot a teacher in a classroom, and last month, another six-year-old had a gun in the classroom. So, we have got to figure this out. Our colleagues don’t seem to understand that there is a problem here, a problem that desperately needs to be addressed. And yes, we have to address it from the mental health angle, for sure. But, we cannot not say the word gun.
Nevada Leader Jauregui: I think it’s something that the states need to work on. I think the burden is going to be on us as state legislators because American gun laws are failing us. They’re failing our communities, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re keeping our communities safe
Michigan Leader Brinks: Particularly, when you see the dysfunction in Congress right now – you know we can’t wait for them to get their act together and take action on this. All eyes are on states like Michigan, where we can get things done. And, the moment to do that is upon us, so I’m really hopeful that we’ve seen a turning point in this conversation where it now becomes a political liability for Republicans not to do the right thing.
I’m hoping they hear from their constituents and they understand that these bills that we’re talking about enjoy 80-90% support from our constituents, across party lines, gun owners and non-gun owners. So, there really is no excuse. We’re really hopeful that we’ll see a much better reception now. But, I think you’re absolutely right, it has to happen in states, and we have to have a critical mass of states that are willing to take action to protect our kids and communities.
This is Part Two of a five-part conversation among women state legislators, convened by the DLCC in honor of Women’s History Month. Read Part One here.