WASHINGTON — When Congress passed landmark gun violence prevention legislation known as the Brady Bill back in 1993, three Michigan Republicans were among the 54 GOP lawmakers who voted to send the bill to President Bill Clinton’s desk. Four Michigan Democrats voted against it.
Gun control politics have shifted dramatically in Michigan and across the country over the past 26 years.
Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly willing to support tougher federal gun control laws, the New York Times reported this week. And congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked congressional efforts to restrict access to firearms after recent mass shootings.
In February of this year, when the U.S. House approved an even tougher background check bill for firearm sales, only one of Michigan’s seven Republican lawmakers — U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (St. Joseph) — supported it.
He was one of just eight Republicans in the entire House to vote in favor of the bill, which passed largely along partisan lines (with the support of all seven Michigan House Democrats).
Michigan lawmakers likely will vote again soon on even more high-profile gun bills. House and Senate leaders have vowed to address gun violence following the back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton earlier this month.
“These awful mass shootings, they plague all of us,” Upton told the Advance this week. “I’d like to think that we can work to get things done in a bipartisan basis,” he added. “Doing nothing is not what I intend to do.”
In the wake of those recent shootings, in which 31 people were killed and another 53 were injured, gun control advocates demanded that the U.S. Senate return immediately to vote on the House-passed background check bill, H.R. 8.
But U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to do so, instead saying that senators would address the issue after members of Congress are slated to reconvene on Sept. 9.
Both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), have signed on as co-sponsors of the Senate companion version of H.R. 8.
Peters told the Advance earlier this month as he kicked off his annual Michigan motorcycle tour shortly after the Dayton and El Paso shootings, “I’m gun owner, and I believe in Second Amendment rights. But there are also common-sense things we can do to stem the tide of gun violence that we’re seeing across the country.”
In a statement to the Advance this week, Peters elaborated on steps Congress could take, starting with “passing legislation I’ve cosponsored to expand background checks, similar to the bill that has already passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. Expanding background checks has the overwhelming support of the American people. I also support red flag laws to better keep these weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them.”
Some House lawmakers, however, are returning to Washington early to vote on even more gun control bills. U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced his panel will meet on Sept. 4 to vote on several more bills aimed at restricting access to firearms.
The committee plans to vote on bills that would ban high capacity ammunition magazines, incentivize state “red flag” laws that allow courts to seize firearms from people deemed threats to themselves or others and prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing firearms.
But it’s unclear whether federal lawmakers will enact significant legislation. Even as some Republicans from Michigan and other states say they’re eager to pass legislation to curb gun violence, others appear reluctant to engage on the issue.
Several Michigan Republicans were outspoken critics of H.R. 8, a top priority for Democrats that would require federal background checks on all gun purchases, including private transactions. The law currently only requires background checks on sales from federally licensed gun dealers. About one in five U.S. gun sales are conducted without a background check, according to the advocacy group Brady United.
Outgoing U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) told the Advance that broadly, he supports background checks for gun sales.
“I believe that background checks should be conducted on everyone except transfer of firearms between family members,” he said.
However, he believes that state agencies have failed to ensure timely and complete entry of information into the federal background check database.
But he opposes H.R. 8, because “they take what seems to be logical and makes some sense and go a couple steps further,” he said.
Mitchell, a member of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, said he would welcome background check legislation that came out of that caucus.
“Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be something that has met with favor with the current House leadership,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), whose 1st District encompasses much of northern Michigan, said in February after H.R. 8 passed, “I oppose any attempt to restrict legal access to firearms for law-abiding citizens and will continue to fight against measures that limit my constituents’ Constitutional rights.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) — a libertarian who left the Republican Party this year to become an independent — dismissed the gun control proposals that are being floated on Capitol Hill.
“The things that are being proposed will not solve the problem [of mass shootings],” Amash told constituents at a Grand Rapids coffee shop. “I do think that we need to do a better job of recognizing who is a risk, but that’s mostly a family and local thing.”
Zeeland Republican Bill Huizenga, who represents the 2nd District in West Michigan, also voted against the bill, but told the Holland Sentinel after the El Paso and Dayton shootings that he has supported some background check legislation in the past.
U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) said H.R. 8 “would burden law-abiding Americans while failing to combat gun violence.”
And U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), whose 7th District is in the south-central part of the state, said the bill “undermines the Second Amendment rights of the American people.”
President Donald Trump suggested a willingness to support stricter background checks after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, but, as he’s done after other massacres, appeared to reverse course after meeting with the head of the National Rifle Association (NRA), multiple news outlets reported.
Asked whether he thinks congressional Republicans fear the ire of the NRA, Upton said, “I do.”
The Michigan Republican opposed the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and hasn’t been renewed. And in 2017, he voted in favor of a bill intended to make it easier for gun owners to legally carry concealed weapons across state lines.
Upton called himself a strong supporter of both gun rights and of background checks.
“I don’t know what the argument is against doing a background check to prevent someone with a criminal record from being able to purchase a firearm,” he said.
Upton said his problem with the assault weapons ban was how the banned weapons were defined, noting that small wording changes could have major consequences for which weapons were prohibited.
He has gotten pushback at home for his support of background check bills.
“I had sort of a tough conversation with one of my constituents; he was convinced that a background check would lead to people knocking on his door and taking away his rifles. I said, ‘As long as you don’t have a criminal record, you’re going to be just fine.’ He didn’t believe me.”
‘We’ll vote them out’
Largely, the public supports more gun control. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted this month showed that 89% of Americans wanted Congress to expand background checks to all firearm sales and 76% back red flag laws.
Emily Durbin, volunteer leader with the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said hyper-partisanship surrounding gun safety has led to “elected officials who look more extreme than the voting public.”
She said that her organization has seen significant growth in Michigan, even in areas considered red.
As Congress prepares to make gun safety a central issue this fall, Durbin said she’s “guarded,” but hopeful about the possibility that Michigan Republicans will change their voting patterns.
“We’re going to be persistent and keep reaching out to them,” she added. If they’re not persuaded, “Then we’ll vote them out,” she said.
At times, Trump and some other congressional Republicans have indicated a willingness to pass a federal law to incentivize state red flag laws, although many Democrats suggest that’s not enough.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called such legislation an “ineffective cop out.” He said Democrats “are not going to settle for half-measures so Republicans can feel better and try to push the issue of gun violence off to the side,” the Hill reported.
Durbin said she’s eager for Congress to pass any legislation that will curb gun violence.
“We do this work because we want to save lives,” she said.
She said it’s critical to enact tougher background checks, but if the U.S. House and Senate will come back and “vote for a strong red flag law” to help save lives, “That would be a good outcome.”
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.