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Opinion Michigan State shootings are a reminder: We must take the guns away

A message is spray is seen spray painted on a rock on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., on Tuesday. (Wali Khan for The Washington Post)
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This time, the victims were students at Michigan State University. This time, the gunman had no apparent connection with the people he shot or the school they attended. This time, the assailant killed himself before we could learn why he went on his rampage. But we do know how: with a gun.

If a man intent on killing had not obtained a gun, three MSU students would not be dead and five others would not be hospitalized in critical condition. The campus in East Lansing, Mich., would not be traumatized. Some students would not bear the burden of having survived the November 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School, roughly 80 miles away, in which four students were killed — only to live through a second school shooting just 15 months later.

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The one certain way to reduce the intolerable toll of gun violence in this country is to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them to kill. Michigan, finally, is prepared to try.

Last November, voters reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and gave her party control of both houses of the state legislature. Whitmer and lawmakers are poised to enact three measures aimed at curbing the carnage: a law mandating universal background checks for gun purchases; a red-flag law allowing authorities to seize firearms from persons who pose a threat of violence; and a law requiring gun owners to store their weapons securely.

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These are all modest steps with widespread public support, polls indicate. Yet the state is able to consider them only now that the Republican Party is out of power. The devolution of the GOP into what amounts to a Second Amendment death cult is a tragedy; trying to reduce gun violence should be a national crusade with bipartisan support. But as long as Republicans fear the wrath of the National Rifle Association more than they respect the views of their constituents, we are reduced to battling this cancer at its margins.

We won’t come to terms with the fact that there are more guns in the United States than people. We won’t ban assault weapons that were designed not for hunting, target shooting or self-defense but for military combat. We won’t deal with the obvious reality that one state’s strong and responsible gun laws can be circumvented if the laws in the state next door are irresponsibly weak.

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But even if it is impossible to do what we should, we have a moral obligation to do what we can.

Would any of the measures being considered in Michigan have prevented the MSU killings? Maybe so, maybe not. But the point is that surely they will prevent some future tragedies.

A background check would keep someone with a troubling history of domestic violence from buying a weapon. A red-flag law would provide a process to have guns taken away from someone who shows signs of homicidal or suicidal ideation. A law mandating safe gun storage would keep some child from picking up a loaded pistol and treating it like a toy — or, as happened last month in Newport News, Va., taking it to school and shooting a teacher.

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The 2018 Parkland High School shooting in Florida, in which 17 people were killed, was so shocking that the GOP-dominated state legislature passed a relatively weak red-flag law that allows only police, not family members, to petition to have weapons taken away from a person considered potentially dangerous. Since then, the law has reportedly been used more than 9,000 times. It is impossible to know how many Floridians are alive today because of that one incremental measure. Surely, however, the answer cannot be zero.

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Now we will go through the ritual of trying to understand why the 43-year-old man who killed and wounded those Michigan State students did what he did — what demons, real or imagined, bedeviled him. We in the media will be judicious in stating his name, to deny him whatever kind of posthumous celebrity or notoriety he might have sought. We will examine his whole life to see how it reached such a tragic end. And when we have learned all we can learn about him, his killing spree still will make no sense. As physicians, psychologists and philosophers have told us, there is no way to see clearly into another person’s mind, another person’s soul.

We can fully ascertain, however, what is being held in another person’s hands. We can see the gun. We must take it away.