After a 15-year-old student at Oxford High School in Michigan opened fire on his classmates last month with a handgun his parents had bought for him, killing four young people and injuring seven, state Democrats are seeking to enact tougher gun laws. Resistance is certain.

Michigan Republicans — who owe their grip on power in part to heavily gerrymandered voting maps — have thwarted proposals to curb gun violence for a decade. The gun lobby often gets credit for such defeats. Yet, Michigan illustrates how outcomes can also hinge on structures that favor minority control and disadvantage Democrats, who tend to support stricter gun measures.

State Senator Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat whose district includes Oxford High, said the notion that her party faces a fair contest in state races is “absurd.” She said that voting maps have allowed the GOP to ignore gun safety measures that enjoy broad support. Bayer plans to reintroduce a “red flag” bill meant to keep guns from those deemed a danger to themselves or others. Polling suggests that 78 percent of Michigan Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans support such measures.

In 2019, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey agreed to a hearing on Bayer’s red flag bill, while expressing doubt over its necessity. The pandemic upended the legislative session, and no hearing was held. Shirkey’s office told The Trace this week that he intends to keep his commitment to hold a hearing — which Bayer said is a “crack in the door” and “more progress than we have ever had on this issue.”

Voting districts in Michigan were last redrawn in 2011, following an ambitious Republican initiative to win dominance in swing state legislatures, thus allowing the GOP to produce favorable maps after the 2010 census. A former head of the Michigan GOP has expressed regret for his role in that effort, saying it had “contributed to the toxicity of politics we see today.”

David Daley, a senior advisor at FairVote, an election reform organization that supports nonpartisan drawing of voting districts, said that Michigan’s maps are among the most gerrymandered in the nation. “According to academic studies,” Daley said, “even in a 50/50, perfectly tied election, the bias in the maps would hand the GOP nearly 12 percent more seats.”

A Trace review of Michigan election results shows that Democrats have won the statewide popular vote in all five Michigan House elections since 2012. When you include the vote tally for state Senate races, which were held in 2014 and 2018, Democrats also prevailed. In some elections, the margin of victory was slim, in others Democrats won by several percentage points, yet the GOP has retained control of each chamber during that period.  

In every legislative session since 2012, Michigan Democrats have introduced bills that call for universal background checks on gun sales, or limits on magazine capacity, or keeping guns out of the hands of those found dangerous to themselves or others, or requiring that guns be stored safely away from children. “And Republicans have not even held any committee hearings on a gun bill, unless it’s a proposal to expand gun rights,” said Christopher E. Smith, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University who chairs the Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “That is not a partisan statement. It is just an objective statement of fact.”

Olga Pierce

State Representative Julie Brixie, a Democrat, said the impasse shows a “contrast between the core values of the two parties.” The partisan divide is indeed wide. A Pew Research Center survey released this year found that 81 percent of Democrats favor stricter gun laws as opposed to 20 percent of Republicans. Overall, the survey found, 53 percent of Americans back stricter laws, down from 60 percent in 2019 and similar to what Pew found in 2017.

Individual policies tend to poll higher. Take storage laws meant to keep guns from kids. Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of the public favor such laws, said Andrew Morral, the director of the Gun Policy in America initiative at the RAND Corporation. Among gun owners, he said, the figure is more than 60 percent. Morral said that unlike some other gun safety proposals, evidence exists for the effectiveness of child-access prevention laws — specifically that they reduce firearm injuries and death among young people. What’s not understood, he said, is the degree to which storage requirements increase vulnerability to a home invader. “The trade-off is between the likelihood that child-access prevention laws will save lives,” he said, “and the more uncertain risk associated with slower response times to an armed intruder.”

Bayer, the Democratic state senator, has a child-access bill stuck in committee.

Michigan Democrats are eyeing a revision of the state’s voting maps to correct the balance of power between the parties and increase the likelihood of their gun measures being heard in the Legislature, and perhaps even made law. Following a petition drive funded in part by out-of-state dark-money groups with a history of backing progressive causes, a referendum was put to Michigan voters in 2018 that called for creation of an independent committee to draw new voting maps. The referendum passed overwhelmingly. The state GOP challenged the committee in federal court and lost. The new maps are to be in place for the 2022 election cycle.

“The support of the people is there,” said Brixie, the state representative, who is seeking a Republican co-sponsor for a red flag bill that she plans to file early next year, “but when you have officials in elected office that are artificially representing communities, which is what you get through gerrymandering, the will of the people does not get reflected by those serving.”

Data editor Olga Pierce contributed to this report.