‘The tentacles of the trauma and grief go everywhere’

Gun Rights

Martha Omilian thinks of her life in two chapters: before Maggie died and after Maggie died. 

Before her daughter, Maggie Wardle, was murdered at the age of 19 by an ex-boyfriend with a hunting rifle, the former psychiatric nurse knew a life in which her daughter adored basketball and golf, was double-majoring in biology and chemistry in order to attend medical school, and dropped everything to help a friend in need. 

Then, on October 18, 1999, Wardle was killed by a man who had emotionally abused her before shooting her twice in his dorm room at Kalamazoo College. He then killed himself. 

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After that, Omilian, knew a life she wants no one else to ever experience. 

Maggie Wardle’s 1998 Plainwell High School graduation photo. | Courtesy photo

“When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is Maggie; the last thing I think about is Maggie,” said Omilian,  who lives in Plainwell, a small city south of Grand Rapids. “I don’t want anybody else to have to deal with this. When you lose a child like that, you just want to fix things so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

In the nearly 24 years that have passed since her daughter’s death, Omilian and her husband, Rick Omilian, Wardle’s stepfather, have traveled the state to advocate for gun reform — like the legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They also have raised funding for community violence intervention programs, joined advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action and spoken to students about domestic abuse, including dating violence.

The work has been deeply meaningful for them and given them purpose as they learn what it means to wake up and remember every day that they must live without their daughter. And while they hope their work results in preventing other families’ pain, it can’t fully take away theirs. They will always be without Wardle, who forever remains a 19-year-old dreaming of medical school as her parents do something she never will: grow old.

“The tentacles of the trauma and grief go everywhere,” Rick Omilian said. “We’re still friends with Maggie’s friends from high school and college, and they carry that with them, too. The aftermath was horrendous for all of them.” 

It is these tentacles of trauma and grief that have ensnared the country — a place where there are more guns than people and where gun violence has been the leading cause of death for children and teenagers since 2020. 

In a land where about 1 million people have been shot over the last decade, where women are 21 times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner with a gun than other high-income countries, and where about 40,600 people are shot and killed every year, the United States is a country increasingly filled with the people we call “survivors.” 

‘A traumatized nation, I think that’s what we’re becoming. Or have become.’

Last week, a survey was released by KFF, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on health research that was previously known as the Kaiser Family Foundation, that paints a stark picture of gun violence in the United States. 

That survey found that one in five adults in the U.S. has had a family member killed by a gun, including by suicide; one in five has been threatened by a gun; and one in six has personally witnessed a shooting. The survey has a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points.

More than half — 54% — of adults reported having a connection to at least one gun-related incident, per the survey. 

The KFF report weaves together the numbers behind a traumatized country where institutionalized racism, disenfranchisement and disinvestment have left Black residents to face higher rates of gun violence than white individuals. One out of three Black adults has had a family member killed by a gun, and three in 10 Black and Hispanic adults have witnessed someone being shot, according to the survey. One-third of Black and Hispanic adults said they worry every day or almost every day about themselves or someone they love being a victim of gun violence, compared to one in 10 white adults.

In a Michigan — a state that has seen two school shootings in less than two years — one that killed four students at Oxford High School in November 2021 and another that killed three students at Michigan State University in February — and a country where there have been more mass shootings (169 as of Saturday) than there have been days in 2023, gun violence has so thoroughly permeated our day-to-day lives that Americans have stopped going to some public spaces because they’re worried they will be shot. 

A little more than one-third of U.S. adults have avoided large crowds, such as music festivals or clubs, to protect themselves from gun violence, according to the KFF survey. About one in five, meanwhile, have changed or considered changing the school their child attends and avoided attending religious services or cultural events out of a fear of gun violence.

“It hits you in the gut to hear these numbers,” said Ashley Kirzinger, the director of survey methodology at KFF. “[The survey] is showing it’s everyone being impacted; it’s not just impacting Democrats or Republicans, cities or rural areas. It’s impacting everyone.

“It’s not even the physical impact of the shooting or witnessing the shooting, it’s also the mere threat and worry about gun violence that’s changing how Americans operate in their daily lives,” Kirzinger continued. “That’s really striking.”

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is Maggie; the last thing I think about is Maggie. I don’t want anybody else to have to deal with this. When you lose a child like that, you just want to fix things so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

– Martha Omilian

KFF is not alone in finding these results. Last year, Everytown, a nonprofit that advocates for gun reform across the country, published a survey that found 59% of U.S. adults have experienced gun violence in their lifetime.

“We are living with communities that are facing community trauma, compounded trauma,” said Tannuja Rozario, the associate director of research at Everytown. “That trauma is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. These [KFF] findings really highlight that we are in a gun violence crisis.”

Every one of these numbers published in KFF’s report has countless stories behind them; each death was a person with family and friends and dreams for the future. The trauma emanating from this violence, survivors told the Advance, spreads and transforms families and communities until it’s difficult to truly remember what life was like before that pain.

“Trauma is not something that stays with that individual,” Kirzinger said of the person who was injured or killed by a gun. “It reverberates into communities.”

It is that word — reverberates — that many of those who spoke with the Advance at length about their experiences with gun violence voiced time and again. 

The emotions behind the word, like its meaning, don’t stop moving; the pain and grief may evolve over time, survivors said, but they don’t disappear. They shift, they hide and reappear, they overwhelm you at times — when you’re driving past the intersection where your son died by suicide, when you remember your friend who would have sat next to you at graduation is gone forever, when the birthdays and holidays and death anniversaries come, relentlessly, every year.

“The reverberations reach so far and wide,” said Renee Upham, whose son, Keegan, survived the mass shooting at Oxford that killed four students: Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, and Justin Shilling. Myre, a star wrestler and football player, would have graduated with Keegan Upham this May.

“You feel almost robotic, like everything will be fine; you tell yourself that over and over, and then another one [mass shooting] happens and another one happens,” said Renee Upham, who was teaching at a nearby school when the Oxford High School shooting happened on Nov. 30, 2021. “A traumatized nation, I think that’s what we’re becoming. Or have become.”

Olivia, Keegan and Renee Upham. | Courtesy of the Upham family

Within that nation are now millions upon millions of people whose lives have been forever changed by gun violence. If one in five adults in the U.S. has had a family member die from gun violence, that translates to about 66.4 million people. And that number grows: those whose friends have died from guns, those who have been injured or know someone who has been, those who have watched, helplessly, as mass shootings play out on their television screens, those who grew up with active shooter drills.

These numbers have not only taken root but have spread in Michigan, where 1,544 people died from firearms in 2021, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

That number is higher than at any other point in the past decade, according to CDC statistics. In 2019, for example, 1,220 people died from gun violence. Going back further, there were 1,095 people in Michigan who died from firearms in 2014. In 2005, 1,074 Michiganders died from gun violence.

That violence is, as Kirzinger pointed out, prevalent throughout the state; it hurls trauma, grief and pain into communities large and small. Those who spoke to the Advance for this story are lawmakers and therapists, former special education teachers and psychiatric nurses, students and police. Their stories vary in many ways, but all of their lives have been permanently altered by gun violence. They have lost people they loved and never stop missing because of gun violence. 

And, amidst deep grief, they are finding hope in the gun reform legislation that Whitmer signed into law this month that mandates universal background checks for all guns and for Michiganders to safely store their guns in homes where the firearms could be accessed by a minor. They also voiced support for the so-called “red flag” bills that are headed to Whitmer’s desk and which permit a court to order the temporary removal of guns from someone who may be a danger to themselves or others.

“Gov. Whitmer, I could just hug her constantly for what she’s done,” Martha Omilian said, referring to the governor’s support for the gun reform legislation. “It’s such a brave thing that she’s done.”

‘I came home to never see my son again’

Growing up, Charles Woodrow Reid was often called “Chuck E. Cheese because he was always joking, always laughing,” his mother, Mia Reid, recalled. 

“He was the sweetest one,” she said. “He was just a sweetheart; he really was.” 

Charles W. Reid’s graduation photo. | Courtesy photo

Charles Reid, who was shot and killed in Detroit at age 24, loved his mother and two younger sisters, was a talented musician who “loved, loved the drums” and adored math. He was his mother’s firstborn and only son.

Now, the date that Charles Reid was killed with a gun is forever seared into his mother’s memory: June 26, 2011.

“I had gone back to school; I had just graduated and a good friend of mine treated me with a trip to the Bahamas,” said Reid, who’s originally from Detroit and currently lives in Southfield. “While I was on that trip, I got the news that my son and my first cousin’s son had been in a fire.

“My brother explained they had not only died in a fire, but they had also been shot, and the fire was to cover it up,” she said. “I came home to never see my son again because he was burned beyond recognition.”

It is essentially impossible to explain what that felt like, Reid explained. This was her son, a part of her, whose death left Reid traumatized. 

“The best word I use is ‘unimaginable,’” she said. “It was so devastating that I was lost emotionally and kind of checked out from everything. I lived in my own bubble, mourning and grieving.”

Ultimately, she sought mental health support, which she largely credits with saving her life.

“I was withering away; I was down to 99 pounds,” she said. “My aunt, who had also lost a child — not to gun violence, but she went through that process — she told me I needed to get help, and I did. It was the best choice I ever made in my life.” 

During therapy, she decided to go back to school to receive her second master’s degree. She already had a master’s in psychology and she then earned another master’s in clinical mental health. Now, Reid is a therapist specializing in trauma. 

“I wanted to share with the world the tools that helped me, and I wanted to help others,” she said. “It was my new purpose. That motivated me to begin to do something that felt good, that felt right, that felt like I was doing it in honor and memory of my son.”

It’s that idea that many of those who spoke with the Advance emphasized: Their own healing, to whatever degree that has taken place, has been rooted in action honoring the person who died, from advocating for gun reform to founding their own nonprofits. 

Mia Reid with a photo of her son, Charles W. Reid. | Courtesy photo

The Omilians, for example, launched an organization called “Remembering Maggie” and have set up a “Remembering Maggie” fund through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to raise money for groups working to address domestic abuse and gun violence intervention.

Reid also launched her own nonprofit, the Charles W. Reid Community Help Center, to support those who have been affected by violence and poverty. And for years, she has advocated for the gun reform bills that she in person watched Whitmer sign into law. Through that advocacy work, including now being the Detroit group lead for Moms Demand Action and as a senior Michigan fellow for Everytown, Reid said she has found a group of people who have helped her to heal and inspire her to continue fighting against gun violence. 

“Now, when I think about my son, I can think about good memories,” she said. “I’m not looking at pictures, sitting on the edge of my bed crying for hours. Do I have my moments? Oh yes. His birthday is always going to come. The death date is always going to come. Holidays with his absence are always going to come. But I know it’s OK to sit in those feelings, and then get up.”

Orange cords at the Oxford High School graduation

A package arrived at the Upham family’s home in Oxford on Monday. 

It was addressed to Keegan Upham, a senior at Oxford High School who’s planning on attending Michigan State University this fall. He wasn’t expecting anything, so the family was curious as to what it was. 

From it came a reminder of a day that forever lives in the family’s memories, a reminder that there will be an empty seat on graduation day, a reminder that trauma and loss will be intertwined with a ceremony meant to be about celebration.

“They were orange cords that Everytown sent to him to wear at his graduation,” said Renee Upham, Keegan’s mother and a resident of Oxford. “It was so overwhelming for me to see that and think about all the kids wearing those, to think about all those seniors on one of the most exciting days of their young lives will be wearing survivor cords. I’d like everyone in the nation to seriously think about that.”

Everytown sends these orange cords — their color a symbol of gun violence survivors and awareness — to gun violence survivors and advocates across the country. 

For Keegan Upham and his family, they are a reminder that the outside world has not forgotten about them or the Nov. 30, 2021, mass shooting that killed four students at Oxford High School. But they, too, are a reminder that their joy and celebrations now collide with a grief that is nowhere close to healing, to a pain they feel the school district has never fully acknowledged. That Oxford’s May 18 graduation comes 534 days after a mass shooting left Keegan Upham to send his parents texts that went from “people can hear shooting” to “I think he’s right outside my door.” 

“I graduated from Oxford in 2017, and those aren’t the cords I was wearing,” said Keegan’s sister Olivia Upham, who, like her mom, was teaching at a nearby school the day of the shooting. “It makes me think of everything that’s been taken from those kids. It means they’ve gone to war and back, and a lot of them aren’t even legal adults yet.

“Tate should be sitting next to Keegan at graduation, but he won’t be, and everyone will have orange cords on,” she continued. “This isn’t a fluke; it’s an epidemic, and there will be more of those orange cords until we as a country start to take this more seriously.”

The initials of the four students who were murdered at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021 are painted on a rock outside the school. The students who were killed were Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, and Justin Shilling. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

It is with that in mind — a country that takes gun violence more seriously — that Renee Upham began her advocacy the day after the shooting, when she wrote Whitmer and Michigan Superintendent of Schools Michael Rice to “sound the alarm bell and ask for help.” 

Part of that help has come in the form of the universal background and safe storage gun reform bills Whitmer just signed and the extreme risk protection order legislation making its way to the governor’s desk. Democratic lawmakers introduced those bills following the Feb. 13 mass shooting at Michigan State University, and they were passed almost entirely along partisan lines. The legislation landed uniform support among Democratic lawmakers; Republicans largely condemned them.

Following the shooting at Oxford, Democratic legislators introduced similar bills that languished in committee under Republican leadership that was unwilling to take up the issue of gun reform. Republicans controlled the House and the Senate at the time of the mass shooting at Oxford; Democrats won slim majorities in the two chambers in November’s election, allowing them to push through the gun reform legislation.

It’s not just legislation addressing gun violence that the Uphams want to see — though they emphasized they’re deeply grateful for it. They also hope there will be additional funding for mental health services in schools, and they want further support from the school district for the survivors of the shooting.

“We’re not through our trauma,” Renee Upham said. “Our healing gets prevented at times. It’s such a devastating thing to happen to your town. There’s no road map or blueprint on how to do it perfectly, but there are things that could have been done differently. I worry about the kids. Our students went back to the same building [where the shooting occurred] — that worries me. I know they painted; they put up some pictures. But there were no structural changes.”

I was withering away; I was down to 99 pounds. My aunt, who had also lost a child — not to gun violence but she went through that process — she told me I needed to get help, and I did. It was the best choice I ever made in my life.

– Mia Reid, whose 24-year-old son was murdered in 2011

The phrase “Oxford Strong” that became ubiquitous following the shooting, emerging on signs throughout the town, became more about “move on to the detriment of some students,” Renee Upham said. 

“That’s not to say people don’t care about each other; we do,” she added. “But there seems to be a division between move on and respect what happened, own up to what happened before you move on.”

Olivia Upham agreed. 

“No one has ever looked him in the eyes and said, ‘This is how you lost your friends that day … and we’re sorry that it happened,’” she said of her brother, who committed to Michigan State University two days before the mass shooting occurred there in February.

As time goes on and as Oxford recedes from the front pages of newspapers now focusing their coverage on mass shootings in places like Nashville, Tenn.; Dadeville, Ala., and Louisville, Ky., the Uphams hope their community will not be forgotten. That the students who died at Oxford will not be relegated to the halls of statistics, their names no longer said by a country grappling with an ever-growing list of children killed by gun violence.

“With Gov. Whitmer signing those bills, I think that’s a big show to those kids that people haven’t forgotten,” Renee Upham said. “Legislation is part of helping us heal.”

Gun violence, Olivia Upham added, “isn’t some faceless political issue.

“I think about Tate, Hana, Justin and Madisyn, and everyone injured — I think of them everyday, and they’re at the heart of my advocacy,” she said.

Oxford and Michigan State University students speak at a press conference demanding gun control legislation on Feb. 20, 2023, one week after a mass shooting on the campus of MSU. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

‘It’s like I was there 10 minutes ago’

For Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson, his decision to advocate for gun reform is rooted in more than three decades in law enforcement. 

During his 31 years on the job, Swanson — who joined the Michigan Sheriffs Association and the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police in backing the extreme risk protection order bills — has never known a life untouched by gun violence.

“I will tell you that the option to do nothing in today’s world is not an option,” said Swanson, who went to MSU as a tactical responder following the mass shooting. “I don’t want to be the sheriff who looks back and says, ‘I could’ve done something more.’” 

He testified before the state Senate in March in favor of the gun reform bills introduced after the mass shooting at MSU.

As is the case with many of those interviewed for this story, Swanson emphasized he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and individuals being able to safely purchase and own guns. But, he said, that ability to access and keep firearms must be accompanied by regulations that deter gun violence.

“Do not confuse safe gun legislation with the erosion of gun ownership,” he said. “I’m an advocate of gun safety and protector of gun ownership. We have to find common ground that protects people.”

It would be difficult to remember every single gun violence incident in his career, but Swanson can vividly recall the first.

He was 18 years old and, through an internship at a community college, was doing a ride-along with a deputy. He can still remember the time when the call came in: 10:36. It was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

It hits you in the gut to hear these numbers. (The survey) is showing it’s everyone being impacted; it’s not just impacting Democrats or Republicans, cities or rural areas. It’s impacting everyone.

– Ashley Kirzinger, the director of survey methodology at KFF

“We get there; the wife had just ordered Burger King — to this day, I can still smell the fries. It smells like gunpowder. The wife is screaming.” 

Her husband had fatally shot himself. 

“That’s 30 years ago, but it’s like I was there 10 minutes ago,” Swanson said.

Since then, the sheriff has gone on to see lives, families and communities ripped apart by gun violence.

“In 31 years, I’ve seen horrifying situations of suicides, homicides, accidental shootings,” he said. “The reality of guns and violence is real.”

But the reality that it’s inevitable, to the degree the country now experiences, is not, the sheriff said.

While Republican lawmakers vehemently condemned the so-called “red flag bills,” otherwise known as the extreme risk protection order legislation, Swanson said he has seen firsthand how those bills could save lives. 

“When you go to a potential threat, whether it’s at a school, at a church — they have access to weapons, and removing the access to weapons keeps people alive,” the sheriff said, adding that police routinely investigate people who have “kill lists.”

In addition to the most recent gun reform bills that have been signed by the governor and passed the Legislature, Swanson said he “would love to see any first-time gun owner be required to go to a training course on gun safety and operation.”

“No matter if you’re 21, 25, 35, 45, if you want a firearm, you should be required to take a state-authorized gun safety course, like CPL [concealed pistol license] holders already do,” he said.

Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson | Courtesy photo

‘The only reason I didn’t fall apart or break is because of my fellow students’

As gun violence continues to mount in this country, those who have survived it do not get a break from its existence, from the never-ending wave of news reports about people dying in schools and grocery stores and places of worship across the country. About a month and a half after the mass shooting at MSU, a woman shot and killed six people at a Nashville school, including three children.

“I couldn’t keep up with what was happening in Nashville; that was way too hard for me,” said Carl Austin Miller Grondin, a senior at MSU and the college’s student body vice president for internal administration.

“I hope within America more and more people are seeing what is happening,” Grondin continued. “Children are dying. People are dying. We need to come together on this.” 

Immediately after the shooting at MSU, Grondin began contacting elected officials to urge them to act on gun reform — something Republican lawmakers had not done after four students were killed at Oxford.

“I met the governor, the attorney general [Dana Nessel], anyone you could think of,” said Grondin, who was not on campus the night of the shooting but his sister, a freshman, was. “I spoke with countless politicians, anyone you could think of. I got a call from the lieutenant governor [Garlin Gilchrist] the day after. Me and my fellow students knew we were going to have to fight to make sure we weren’t going to be another statistic.”

We are living with communities that are facing community trauma, compounded trauma. That trauma is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. These (KFF) findings really highlight that we are in a gun violence crisis.

– Tannuja Rozario, the associate director of research at Everytown

Like many of the survivors interviewed for this story, it has largely been that advocacy work, as well as connections with his peers, that have kept him going in what have been some of the darkest days of his life. 

“The only reason I didn’t break or fall apart is because of my fellow students, who continued advocating,” said Grondin, who spoke before the Michigan House in support of the gun reform bills during a legislative committee hearing.

He’s relieved that the gun reform legislation has passed following the shooting, which killed MSU students Brian Fraser, Alexandria Verner, and Arielle Anderson. But, he emphasized, those bills are not all that can be done to address the violence that has left 50,000 MSU students to live in the shadow of trauma.

“This isn’t the end,” he said. “This is, very aggressively, the beginning.”

And, he said, the college students who have poured onto the steps of the Michigan Capitol to demand change from lawmakers, have showcased the “power of Gen Z.”

“Right now, our generation isn’t allowing for anyone to be forgotten or silenced anymore,” he said. 

Someday, Grondin said, it will be because of today’s college students that the country will not know this “uniquely American problem” of pervasive gun violence. 

“We’ve experienced this violence our entire lives,” he said. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have to prepare for a school shooting.

“My generation is tired, but we’re not done,” Grondin continued. “We’re sick of it, and we’ll continue to fight until our demands are met. We will not forget the names of Brian, Alexandria and Arielle.”

Carl Austin Miller Grondin, a senior at Michigan State University, speaks at an End Gun Violence press conference on March 1, 2023 in Lansing. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

‘I was shocked that these were party votes’

Democratic lawmakers, as well as a couple former Republican congressmen from Michigan — Fred Upton and Dave Trott — agree more legislative action around gun violence needs to occur.

That, state Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton), will take time — but it will happen. 

“There’s tens of thousands of gun deaths every year; we’d be foolish to think any one specific policy will rid ourselves of that epidemic,” Puri said. “We need to have every suggestion on the table that can help curb this senseless violence that’s completely preventable.

“On the policy side, I’ve canvassed members, and there are dozens of ideas on the table,” Puri continued. “Good policy takes time. It takes running it by an exhaustive list of stakeholders.”

For the Democratic lawmakers who uniformly supported the most recent gun reform package, that continued action is important, Puri said — and addressing gun violence hits especially close to home for a number of elected officials whose lives have been forever changed by firearms. That includes Puri, who had to watch on television as a white supremacist attacked a Sikh temple where he and his family had worshiped in Oak Creek, Wisc., and where his close friends still attended at the time of the shooting.

On Aug. 5, 2012, a gunman killed six people at the temple. It was largely that incident — and a subsequent conversation about it with former President Barack Obama, whom Puri had worked for — that inspired Puri to run for office.

State Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) speaks at a bill signing event for a package of firearm regulations, East Lansing, April 13, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

The lawmaker also noted gun violence has ripped apart Sikh communities that, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have been the targets of racist, xenophobic and white supremacist attacks.

“I was raised in the Sikh space culturally; this is a community that, post-9/11, has fallen victim to a tremendous amount of hate crimes and gun violence,” Puri said. “… Every member of the [Sikh] community knows someone who has lost someone because of gun violence, largely because of a hate crime.”

State Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac), the co-chair of the bicameral Michigan Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention Caucus, also knows what it is to have her life forever changed because of firearms.

“I was impacted by gun violence not once but twice,” Carter said. “I started my advocacy when my nephew was gunned down while he was walking to the store in Grand Rapids in 2011. I joined Moms Demand Action in 2019 to advocate against the trauma of having a nephew gunned down.

“Then, in 2018, as I was preparing to run for the Legislature, I received a call that my son had been a victim of gun violence. He survived the shooting, but not the trauma of that. He died in 2019.”

Carter’s son, Brian, was a veteran who had served in Iraq and had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the millions of people whose lives have been permanently upended by gun violence, Carter immediately thinks of her son when she hears of mass shootings and other traumatic events. 

“After MSU, I went to the corner of Michigan Avenue and Martin Luther King in Lansing and looked at the sign where my son took his last breath,” Carter said. 

For both Puri and Carter, Whitmer signing the gun reform bills brought them a sense of pride accompanied by a sadness and grief that is now forever a part of their lives. 

“I teared up when the reform bills went into place,” Carter said. “Many people look at it as a political move, but I thought about my nephew and son. I saw it as a victory, not only for those we no longer have in our lives but for every mother and father who don’t have to live with what I have to live with.”

Rep. Brenda Carter speaks at a press conference demanding gun control legislation on Feb. 20, 2023, one week after a mass shooting on the campus of Michigan State University. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

It’s that idea — that this legislation will lead to fewer people dying and fewer families mourning — that left Puri in shock that Republican lawmakers largely did not support the gun reform package.

Two of the gun reform bills, SB 81 and SB 82, passed with Republican Sens. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) and Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) backing the legislation. But otherwise, GOP lawmakers did not support the legislation and often issued outrage over the legislation they said was an attack on Second Amendment rights. 

However, the gun reform bills do not keep anyone from owning or purchasing a gun. The red flag laws would temporarily remove a firearm from someone who a judge has determined could harm or kill themselves or others. Senate bills 81 and 82 would exempt firearm safety devices from the sales tax.

“I was shocked that these were party line votes,” Puri said. “If you look at support levels around the state for these first few packages introduced and passed, the numbers showed overwhelming bipartisan support. These issues do not need to be political or partisan. The numbers from around the state wouldn’t dictate a party line vote.”

A Michigan-wide survey recently conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group found 87.8% of Michigan voters support universal background checks for all firearms, including 77% of Republicans and 77.8% of Republican gun owners. Meanwhile, 85.5% of gun owners in general support background checks. Firearm owners in Michigan recently gathered at a press conference to call for gun reform.

I was raised in the Sikh space culturally; this is a community that, post-9/11, has fallen victim to a tremendous amount of hate crimes and gun violence. … Every member of the (Sikh) community knows someone who has lost someone because of gun violence, largely because of a hate crime.

– Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton)

Upton, a Republican from St. Joseph who recently left office after serving 36 years in the U.S. House, and Trott, a Republican from Birmingham who served in Congress from 2015 to 2019, both said they are hopeful that gun reform will be enacted at the federal level. But they are not optimistic with the current Republican-led House. Both Upton and Trott supported the gun reform bills signed into law by Whitmer, as well as the red flag bills on her desk.

“Anyone who’s a legitimate hunter or sportsperson has nothing to fear, and yet some of these organizations, particularly the Gun Owners of America, they’ve viewed everything as gun confiscation, which is just flat-out wrong,” said Upton. “When I voted for the Brady Bill [in 1993], I had police protection for a couple weeks from some of the threats that came my way.”

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which was enacted in 1994, required background checks on all handgun purchases from federally licensed firearm dealers.

Upton, who noted he has met with the survivors of mass shootings at schools including Parkland in Florida and Sandy Hook in Connecticut, said he expects gun violence to “be a bigger political issue than ever before” in the 2024 election. That, he said, could lead to political change that may usher in a swell of lawmakers supportive of gun reform.

“These issues are not going away,” Upton said. “These shootings are just everyday. Eight people were killed in Chicago last weekend. It’s got to end. I think, unlike before, when they’ve been able to sweep it under the rug — thoughts and prayers — now they can’t. People, voters, across the country are fed up with this. The idea that more guns will make us safer, that would mean we’re the safest country on the planet. We’re not.”

Trott also said a lack of support for gun reform could make Republicans vulnerable in the 2024 election.

“All the bills, in my opinion, were common sense measures to try and make a difference on these mass shootings and gun violence in our country,” Trott said of the Michigan legislation around universal background checks, safe storage and extreme risk protection orders. “What was so repugnant to me is so many Republicans are in denial and beholden to the NRA [National Rifle Association] to even consider common sense reforms.”

Ultimately, Trott said political change will come if independent voters — the largest voting bloc in the country — “are upset enough and turn out to vote.” Galvanized by anger over gun violence and Republicans attacking access to abortion, he said, those independent votes would lead to Democrats winning seats.

Former U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) speaks in support of gun reform legislation during a Michigan House Judiciary Committee hearing on March 1, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Hope for the future

Whatever happens in the 2024 election, gun violence survivors said they know the fight for comprehensive gun reform across the country will be a battle they will likely continue to wage for years to come. Change, Martha Omilian said, is not easy to come by.

“I’m so happy we are finally passing gun laws in Michigan, but I also think about how long we’ve been working on this,” she said, referring to the advocacy work she and her husband have done since her daughter was murdered. “It’s been over 20 years.”

Still, Omilian said, she “didn’t give up, and I will never give up.”

At the state level, survivors are urging Michigan lawmakers to focus on domestic violence legislation and banning assault weapons in their next bills addressing gun violence.

“You have women being assaulted and abused by husbands and boyfriends who have a weapon,” Reid said. “That’s how they’re living. That is definitely something I think needs to be addressed. That should be a priority.”

The tentacles of the trauma and grief go everywhere. We’re still friends with Maggie’s friends from high school and college, and they carry that with them, too. The aftermath was horrendous for all of them.

– Rick Omilian

State Democratic and Republican lawmakers have previously introduced legislation, including House Bills 5371-5372 in 2021, that would prohibit individuals convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from owning a gun or ammunition until eight years after they have paid any fines and completed their jail or probation terms. Those bills never made it out of committee when Republicans controlled the Legislature, despite the bipartisan support.

Reid added that “something everyone should be thinking about is that AR-15. … I am all for the Second Amendment. What I am against is people using weapons of war. You have to ask why they’re using that AR-15. They are using that to take out as many people as they can.”

Mass shooters often use AR-15s to murder people en masse. The gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, for example, used an AR-15 that police feared.

Gun violence researchers have noted that a federal assault weapons ban enacted from 1994 through 2004 led to fewer mass shootings. Federal legislators failed to renew that in 2004, and there has been no assault weapons ban since then.

Maggie Wardle, left, and her mother, Martha Omilian in August of 1999 | Courtesy photo

As lawmakers take on their next round of gun violence legislation, those whose lives have been forever changed by firearms hope the policymakers remember the people behind the statistics. For these families, it is the names of those they loved and will never see again that will forever echo within these bills. 

These are names that will never become numbers for them. These are the names of people who, family members and friends said, should still be here. Perhaps Maggie Wardle would have been a doctor. Charles W. Reid certainly would still be making people laugh, his mother said. Tate Myre would be graduating alongside Keegan Upham.

Perhaps, instead of the Omilians watching television in Wardle’s old bedroom, speaking of a daughter they so deeply miss, she would be there with them. 

But she is not. And while her parents have converted her bedroom into a TV room, “we still call it Maggie’s room,” Rick Omilian said.

It will always be Maggie’s room, they said. 

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