GOP Senate Leader promises hearing for Michigan "red flag" bill

Photo Courtesy of the National Shooting Sports Foundation

Is this a sign that Republicans in the state may be getting ready to embrace a gun control bill, or just the fulfillment of a promise made several years ago?

The spokesperson for Michigan’s Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey says its the former, noting that back in 2019 the Republican agreed to hold a hearing on “red flag” legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Rosemary Bayer. That promise has gone unfulfilled until now, but with Democrats once again set to introduce legislation establishing an Extreme Risk Protection Order in the wake of the shooting at Oxford High School last November, Shirkey may have decided that putting off a hearing could have political consequences for Republicans in an election year where they’re hoping that a red wave can not only increase their legislative majorities, but install conservatives as governor and attorney general.

Regardless of the reasons, it sounds like the debate is coming and Democrats won’t have much longer to wait.

The legislation would allow a judge to issue an extreme risk protection order after a court considers evidence in support of the request. Once an order is issued, law enforcement could take temporary possession of an individual’s firearms, and ban them from purchasing new firearms while the order remains in effect.

“Extreme risk protection orders save lives by allowing family members and law enforcement to act before warning signs escalate into tragedies, like the one we recently saw happen at Oxford High School in my district on November 30th last year,” Bayer said in a statement. “Michigan needs red flag laws on the books to not only help us prevent the next school shooting, but so that we can also help protect our loved ones in their darkest hour.”

The first question Republicans should ask Bayer during the upcoming debate is “how exactly would your bill have prevented the shooting at Oxford High School?” Based on the facts that have come to light so far, it seems to me that a red flag law would have no impact whatsoever.

According to authorities, the suspect’s parents bought the gun for him, so it seems odd to think that they would have tried to red flag themselves and had their own firearms removed from the home. The school district never spoke to the parents or disciplined the suspect in any way until the day of the shooting, and prosecutors believe that the teen had the handgun in his backpack at school during that meeting, so even if the school had contacted police that morning, there’s no way that a hearing would have been held before the shooting began.

Beyond the specific circumstances of the Oxford High School shooting, though, there are still fundamental issues with red flag laws, both in terms of their constitutionality and the practical impacts that they have in terms of reducing violence.

The problems with due process protections (or lack thereof) are pretty well established by this point; ex parte hearings where only one side’s evidence is presented, a lack of legal representation if the petitioner cannot afford to hire an attorney (unlike criminal cases, where defendants are entitled to a public defender, red flag cases are civil matters and representation is not guaranteed or provided).

Then there’s the fact that most red flag laws have no mention of mental health services, even for those determined by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others. No, under red flag laws once the guns are taken the danger is supposedly gone, even if the individual deemed to be dangerous still has access to knives, rope, pills, gasoline, and matches.

If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you’re not alone. But red flag laws also allow lawmakers to claim they’re doing something, and something that doesn’t come with a huge price tag, unlike fixing a state’s broken mental health system for those in crisis. How are things going in Michigan when it comes to providing treatment for juveniles who are suffering through a mental health crisis? Not good.

In emergency rooms across Michigan, the same shameful scene plays out over and over again, just as it has for years.

“The first time we waited, it was about four days,” said Alexis Wyatt, whose 9-year-old daughter Athena suffers from bipolar disorder. “But the longest time we’ve ever waited, she was in the ER for 9 days.”

Children like Athena in an acute mental health crisis are forced to wait—”stacked up,” as one frustrated hospital executive put it—because there is no bed available to treat them, only room to hold them.

“You would not turn away a child who has a broken arm,” Wyatt said, “but you take a child with a broken mind to an ER, and you’re told you have to sit there for days.”

The process has played out so many times, Wyatt says, that she’s grown numb to it.

“Nobody should have to be used to a broken system like this,” she said.

The state’s privately-run hospitals are short about 100 beds for inpatient juvenile mental health treatment, and the facilities operated by the state of Michigan itself aren’t doing any better.

One way the state could help to fix the problem—or at least lessen it—is by adding beds at the one children’s hospital it operates. The Hawthorn Center in Northville has a capacity to treat up to 118 children, but is funded to treat just 55.

It’s been that way for years. In fact, back in 2010, Hawthorn was funded to treat 65 children.

“They’ve got a waiting list of 40 plus kids waiting in there. Those kids get stacked up as well. It’s just unconscionable,” Nykamp said. “The state probably, minimally, should be looking at 50 plus more beds.”

Red flag laws are an unserious (and unconstitutional) “solution” to a very real problem, and if Republicans in the statehouse are going to bring up a red flag bill for debate, I hope they’re going to offer a substantive alternative that addresses the real issue instead of just going along with a proposal that offers the false promise of increased safety at the expense of our constitutionally-protected rights.