As Igor Volsky traverses the country representing the pro-gun-control nonprofit Guns Down America, he’s visited communities torn apart by gun violence from exurban Delaware to Littleton, Colo., where the Columbine High School shooting occurred 20 years ago.
Volsky, the group’s founder and executive director, made back-to-back stops in Michigan this week. He saw two starkly different, but equally deadly, manifestations of the country’s gun violence epidemic — an inner city long plagued by gun violence in Flint, and a more rural South Lansing community where residents are concerned about easy access to guns as the state’s suicide rate continues its startling rise.
“Most suicides happen in rural areas by white men, overwhelmingly,” Volsky told a crowd of around 50 — mostly older, and, yes, white people — at South Lansing’s Unitarian Universalist Church Tuesday night.
“But of course, that’s not the image you think of when you hear the term ‘dangerous people’ [to refer to gun owners]. We all know what that term means politically, right? … Not you, gun owner, it’s those other ‘dangerous people.’”
And if it wasn’t clear to whom he was referring, Volsky made it clear both later in his remarks and in a separate conversation with the Advance.
“In this country, we’ve dealt with gun violence by putting the mostly Black and Brown people in handcuffs, while giving gun industry and gun dealers basically a free pass for creating incredibly deadly weapons and marketing them to young people,” he said after the event. “I think that’s outrageous. I think that’s a scandal.
“When we have events in more urban areas of the country where there’s the kind of everyday gun violence that people in that community have been living with for decades and decades and decades, you have a different kind of conversation that’s rooted in around community actions and community programs that have very successfully brought down those rates of violence,” Volsky continued.
“Millions of Americans are now waking up to the reality of gun violence that some of our fellow citizens have been living with for years.”
‘People want to take action’
Volsky has covered gun issues since his days as managing editor of ThinkProgress, and he’s written a book, “Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns.” Both Michigan stops on his 20-city national tour were both hosted by the liberal activist group Progress Michigan.
Deputy Communications Deputy Director Sam Inglot moderated Tuesday’s event, telling the crowd his group’s research has found that a pro-gun control, anti-National Rifle Association (NRA) political message resonates stronger with Michigan voters they surveyed than almost any other tested.
“At the end of the day, people are tired of seeing gun violence in their communities from mass shootings to gun violence in the street to suicides and workplace violence [and] domestic abuse. People want to take action,” Inglot said. “And people want to hold the entities responsible for helping manufacture this crisis accountable.”
According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Michigan’s firearm mortality rate is 11.3 per 100,000 people, around the middle of the pack nationwide. As of 2016, the United States far outpaces most of its global peers in its firearm mortality rate, sneaking into the top 20 nations worldwide.
Inglot said that this week’s event in Flint, held at St. Michael Catholic Church on Monday for an audience of about 30, was meant to “lift up what the [Flint] community is doing.” The panel featured “folks who provide community level services” including the nonprofit M.A.D.E Institute and WOW Outreach in a “conversation about addressing gun violence in a holistic fashion.”
Joseph Pettigrew is the founder of Flint’s Black Scopes media startup, which co-sponsored the Monday town hall. Pettigrew described the events as invaluable opportunities to share the perspectives of inner-city residents about gun control with state and national figures alike.
“The inner-city perspective needs to be included in that debate,” Pettigrew said, “and that includes racism, criminal justice and even education reform … people associate criminality and blackness, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
A growing coalition
In Lansing, Inglot introduced Volsky and the two other speakers in attendance, freshman state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) and Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence Executive Director Linda Brundage.
“Mass shootings get all the press, but we are also remembering today the much larger number of daily, grinding deaths happening in all of our communities,” Brundage said.
She argued for measures to “ensure police are equitably serving all of the public” in addition to traditional gun-control policy goals like universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
In recent years, Democrats have found support for those measures in unexpected quarters. Hope’s diverse district covers everything from Lansing’s south side to suburban Delhi Township to rural areas bordering Jackson County. Last fall, Hope won the open, marginal seat by roughly 10 points.
In an interview with the Advance, she described an awakening among residents there regarding the effects of gun violence. The former Ingham county commissioner said she was canvassing during the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018.
“And even people … would say, ‘I’ve been around guns my whole life, I’m a hunter’ — people who didn’t even particularly lean Democratic, they would say, ‘We have to do something. I’m worried about my kids.’”
On Tuesday, Hope touted various gun control measures she’s recently co-sponsored in the Legislature, including House Bill 4284 that would bar the sale of firearms to Michigan residents under an extreme risk protection order, otherwise known as red flag legislation.
She also supports House Bill 4512 that would establish penalties for negligently leaving firearms where they can be accessed by minors. Both are currently before the House Judiciary Committee.
Hope for bipartisan support
Hope warmed up the crowd by telling them the “F” rating she received from the NRA was “the only ‘F’ I’ve received in my life I’m proud of.” She lamented, however, that “sadly, Michigan is not one of the places where [red flag] laws have earned bipartisan support.”
Similar laws have passed in 15 states as of this month, including those with more traditionally pro-gun Republican governments like Indiana and Florida.
Volsky’s group, for its part, has chosen to navigate around opposition from a GOP-controlled U.S. Senate by focusing on efforts to get large corporations, especially banks, to divest financially from the gun industry.
“In the Senate to really get things done, we would need to convince [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.),” Volsky said. “I’m not going to be able to convince people whose entire political identity revolves around what the NRA stands for to agree with me. … Companies move because they have to consider where the market is moving, and whether customers are going to be. And their customers are on our side of the issue.”
Hope said she was optimistic that support is growing. She noted her constituents described “reasonable gun control” as “background checks, keeping weapons out of the hands of people who have demonstrated that they’re potentially dangerous… high-powered rifles and large magazines and those kind of things that make an incident all the more deadly.
“I would hope that extreme risk protection orders and child access measures would have fairly universal support,” she continued.
“In other states, Republicans have come around on the extreme risk protection order legislation, and who knows, maybe we can get some somebody championing the child access piece, because that just seems like a common-sense measure.
“If you’re a responsible gun owner, it shouldn’t be a problem.”