Gun deaths in Michigan have surpassed deaths by car accident. Bridge Magazine examines why

Apr 10, 2013

Credit A.J. Jones, Bridge

It used to be that someone in Michigan was more likely to die in an auto accident than from firearms. But in the last three years that has changed. Freelance writer Pat Shellenbarger discovered that when he examined guns in Michigan for Bridge Magazine.  He spoke with WMUK's Gordon Evans

Shellenbarger says the rate of gun deaths is going down, but not as quickly as other things, including car accidents. Shellenbarger says that can be explained in part because cars are safer now, due to features such as airbags. He says some safety advocates want to frame the issue around firearm safety, rather than gun control. Shellenbarger says that may include things like public education on locking up guns. But he says access to guns is part of the issue. Shellenbarger says in cases of homicide or suicide if a gun is readily available, it may be used in the heat of the moment. 

One of Shellenbarger’s stories examines a 2011 shooting spree in Grand Rapids. Rodrick Dantzler killed seven people before taking his own life. The gun he used was a 9mm-glock semi-automatic handgun. But Dantzler was a convicted felon who could not legally purchase the gun. Shellenbarger says the gun used had been stolen two years before, and had been legally purchased. There was an indictment against someone involved in the transactions that led to the gun ending up in Dantzler’s hands.

Shellenbarger says most guns used in crimes are purchased legally then end up on the black market. A gun shop in Ottawa County illustrates how some guns end up on the black market. The store in West Olive has been robbed at least five times in recent years. The latest break-in was in January. Shellenbarger says that in April of 2006 more than 60 firearms were stolen from the same store. Many of those turned up in other parts of the state, and were used in crimes and were found in drug houses. Shellenbarger says gun dealers are not licensed through the state, but through the federal government. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms says the shop in Ottawa County is in compliance.

School shootings are a big issue now because of last year's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. The National Rifle Association has proposed arming teachers. And the Michigan Legislature has proposed various bills that could relax a ban on guns in schools. Governor Snyder vetoed one late last year. Bridge looked into a 1993 shooting at a school in Chelsea. In that case, the teacher was the shooter. Shellenbarger says the teacher, Steven Leith takes responsibility for the shooting, and feels bad for what happened. Leith, who is now serving a life prison sentence, says anti-depressants he was taking at the time may have contributed to his behavior. Shellenbarger says Leith had also amassed a large collection of guns at his home. He says that raises the question of whether immediate access makes it more likely that a gun will be used.

In 2001, Michigan became a “shall issue” state. Shellenbarger says it used to be difficult to get a license to carry a concealed firearm. The change in the law meant the state had to issue the permit unless there was a good reason not to, such as a felony conviction. Shellenbarger says the increase in guns has not led to greater violence, but he says it’s an oversimplification to say the increase in guns has caused the rate of homicide to go down. Shellenbarger says the rate of violent gun deaths had started going down before the change in the law. Shellenbarger says much of the debate has been about assault rifles after shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. But he says the vast majority of firearms deaths are with handguns.

Bridge also has a look at how mental health issues impact safety. It includes the story of a University of Michigan student fatally beaten by a mentally ill man in Kalamazoo in 2000. Kevin Helsinger's death brought new focus to the issue of mental illness and treatment. Governor Snyder ordered a new examination of Michigan's mental health system after last year's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.