The Michigan Senate today rejected an attempt to eliminate a law requiring people who buy handguns from unlicensed sellers to first pass a background check, voting instead to preserve every essential element of a system mayors and police called a successful crime-fighting tool.
The vote marked a remarkable turnaround for legislation the National Rifle Association’s Washington office had designed as a vehicle to repeal the state’s “permit to purchase” system and eliminate the permit database maintained by the Michigan State Police. A version of the bill that would have gutted the permit system passed the Michigan House earlier this year and was widely expected to reach Governor Rick Snyder’s desk during the legislature’s lame-duck session.
Late this fall, however, a coalition of Michigan mayors who are members of the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, law enforcement leaders, and domestic violence opponents launched a furious lobbying effort to save both elements of the system. The Michigan State Police argued that eliminating the permits, which are only issued to applicants who pass a background check, would give felons, the seriously mentally ill and domestic abusers instant access to firearms sold by unlicensed “private sellers.” While federal law requires licensed firearms dealers to conduct checks, it does not require private sellers to do so.
“Michiganders can be proud of their legislators and their governor today,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chair of the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition. “It’s amazing that the Washington gun lobby thought they could give marching orders to Lansing, but they almost succeeded. Governor Snyder and the Senate stood up against enormous pressure to keep Michigan safe – and I join the ten Michigan mayors in our coalition in saying ‘way to go.'”
The permitting system the Senate voted to retain blocked 2,595 prohibited gun purchasers from buying handguns in 2011 alone. Without it, about 48 percent of Michigan handgun sales – the percentage conducted by unlicensed sellers – would take place with no background check, according to law enforcement authorities.
“It took a coalition of mayors, law enforcement officials and domestic violence prevention advocates to come together and stop the NRA’s attempt to end background checks for private gun sales in Michigan,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns Co-Chair and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. “As they did in Michigan today, these defenders of public safety will come together again – in cities and states across the country – as we work to reduce the number of American lives lost each day to gun violence.
The risks private handgun sales pose were exposed in October in neighboring Wisconsin when a man shot and killed three workers at a Brookfield spa. A state judge had recently issued a restraining order against Radcliffe Houghton, whose wife said she feared he intended to kill her. The judge’s order rendered Houghton ineligible to buy a firearm under federal law. But because Wisconsin does not require background checks for private sales, he bought a handgun from an unlicensed seller advertising on the popular Armslist.com website and murdered his wife and two others before committing suicide.
Background checks enjoy overwhelming public approval, including among gun owners. A 2012 survey of NRA members by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members support criminal background checks for all gun sales.
Statements from Michigan Mayors Against Illegal Guns
Flint Mayor Dayne Walling: “This effort was a turning point. We decided to no longer allow a vocal minority to control the politics of guns with partial information andminimal dialogue. Instead, we engaged communities across the state in an effort to save the background check system. And our legislators in Lansing listened. They put the brakes on a dangerous proposal that would have made it far easier for criminals to obtain handguns and would have endangered our public safety.”
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell: “This is an issue we care deeply about in West Michigan. I am proud of our tradition of responsible gun ownership in this part of the state. We are hunters and sportsmen and we want to protect our families. But we also want to do everything we possibly can to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, domestic abusers, and the severely mentally ill. For this reason, I am so honored to join the bipartisan ranks of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition.”
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero: “I am honored to join this coalition — there has never been a more important time to get involved. This month, Michigan mayors joined with law enforcement officials from around the state and we spoke with one powerful voice – that effective gun laws save lives. We stood up for common sense, and we won.”
Ypsilanti Mayor Paul T. Schreiber: “This is a clear-cut victory that will keep our families safe from gun violence. Ypsilanti and other Michigan cities already face significant challenges, and the last thing we need is a bill to completely eliminate handgun purchase permits. Today, our legislature made clear that background checks save lives – and that getting rid of them would only benefit criminals.”
Statements from Coalition Opposed to HB 5225
Interim Chief Chester Logan, Detroit Police Department: “The original version of HB 5225 posed an immediate threat to the law enforcement members that serve our communities. This is a win not only for the citizens of Michigan, but also for the brave women and men who risk their lives every day to protect us. I am glad that the state legislators made the right decision to stand with law enforcement.”
Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, Director, Michigan State Police: “Law enforcement officials from around the state spoke out against HB 5225 and our elected officials heard us loud and clear. The amended version of the bill keeps all of the law enforcement tools and public safety measures that were slated to be eliminated. There is still plenty of work to be done to help curb gun violence and bolster public safety in Michigan, but this was a critical step in the right direction. ”
Kym L. Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor: “Our office depends on the handgun permit system to help us solve and prosecute crimes. I am pleased and relieved that our state lawmakers trusted their better judgment and voted to keep this critical resource. Ourstreets are safer and the public is better protected as a result.”
Kathy Hagenian, Executive Policy Director of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence: “It’s well established that easier access to firearms increases the risk of homicide for victims of domestic violence. By maintaining background checks on all handgun sales and keeping the pistol database in place, our legislature has demonstrated their continuing commitment to protecting victims of domestic violence in our state.