Gun Law and the MSU Shooting

The horrific shooting at Michigan State University last Monday, which left three students dead and five seriously wounded, was met with understandable grief and anger across the political divide.  The suspected shooter, Anthony McRae, killed himself before police could arrest him, and his uncle described him as “’struggl[ing] with paranoid schizophrenia.’”  Predictably, the Left channeled its grief into one of those familiar mass rallies on the MSU campus, a setting for soppy Democrat speeches blaming the murders on the nation’s failure to pass more gun control.  An allegedly “furious” Michigan House Majority Leader Ranjeev Puri (D), tweeted a statement, on official letterhead, with the bold opening sentence, "F--- your thoughts and prayers," demanding instead the “action and change” of passing “common sense gun reform immediately.” 

There was also grief and empathy for the victims and their families among conservatives, and understandable resentment of Democrats once more blaming legal gun ownership for the latest notorious gun crime.  Once details emerged that McRae had a prior firearm felony dismissed and pleaded to a misdemeanor, conservatives turned their outrage on the woke prosecutor; if she hadn’t refused to apply the “common sense” law on the books, McRae could have imprisoned and disqualified him from possessing a firearm.  A typical comment is, “If McRae had been charged as any other person caught illegally carrying a concealed firearm without a permit, the shooting at MSU might not have happened.” 

It’s true that when McRae was arrested in 2019 for carrying a handgun without a concealed pistol license (CPL), the Ingham County prosecutor was a Soros-linked progressive who imposed irrational woke policies clearly meant to favor criminals.  Significantly, Carol Siemon “made it her office’s official policy in August 2021 to drop mandatory prison sentences for felony firearms charges,” because, “In Michigan, about 80 percent of people who are incarcerated on a felony firearm charge are Black, even though our statewide population for that race is only 14 percent.”  Siemon’s “equity” agenda was such a disaster she stepped down as prosecutor under a torrent of criticism from judges and law enforcement officials over her soft-on-crime policies. 

But the prevailing idea among conservatives, that except for Siemon’s office dismissing McRae’s felony charge he “would have been barred from owning a firearm at the time of the shooting,” or safely behind bars last Monday, needs a second look: not because the man who stole three students’ lives of deserves a posthumous defense, but because the argument that McRae should have been subjected to a “zero-tolerance” standard for his 2019 concealed-weapon offense goes too far.  It also fails to make some important distinctions.

To start with, there’s a difference between a “firearm felony” charge and a firearm violation that is a felony, because a “firearm felony” means possessing a firearm while committing or attempting to commit another felony, like carjacking or burglary.  In an effort to discourage career criminals from carrying guns, Michigan passed a mandatory sentencing law to make sure that, even if a convicted criminal faced only a light or suspended sentence for his underlying felony, a judge had no choice but to give a prison sentence if a gun was involved.  Siemon’s office issued 205 felony firearms charges in 2020, 67% of which were against black people, so she decided to reduce that number by simply refusing to issue the additional gun charge against black offenders, a policy the county sheriff described as “garbage.” 

Garbage, indeed.  But it wouldn’t have applied to McRae, anyway, because the reason for his arrest, carrying a concealed weapon, was a standalone felony.  The penalties for that aren’t mandatory, ranging anywhere from a fine to up to five years in prison, but even probation within the court’s discretion.  At McRae’s trial in October 2019, prosecutors added an additional misdemeanor count of possession of a loaded firearm in a vehicle, probably as an incentive for a plea deal.  McRae pleaded to the misdemeanor, the felony charge was dropped, and McRae was given two years’ probation. 

All of which makes it unlikely McRae would have gone to jail, regardless of who the prosecutor was.  John Dewane, who replaced Siemon as prosecutor, explained that sentencing guidelines for both charges were similar, and both “would have resulted in a recommendation against incarceration.”  A former prosecutor, Detroit-area criminal attorney Todd Flood, stressed that each case must be considered on its facts, and viewed McRae’s misdemeanor plea as “not an uncommon deal.”  If a “zero tolerance” approach demanding the maximum penalty were applied in every case, plea deals would end, massively overcrowd prisons, and causing the justice system to grind to a halt.

Nor can we apply the facts of last week’s carnage to condemn McRae’s treatment four years ago.  In 2019 he hadn’t murdered anyone, had a clean record, and nothing on the body cam indicates he was mentally unfit to own a gun.  If it helps, we can imagine any law-abiding John Smith who carried his legally owned and registered handgun for protection in a bad neighborhood, but without the license required by Michigan statute.  That makes it a crime in Michigan, but malum prohibitum can’t turn self-defense into malum in se, and in the 25 other states that have no permit requirement, it would be no crime at all.  Even law-and-order prosecutors distinguish between obvious criminals and people with no criminal intent.  In separate cases last year in Michigan, two prominent college athletes were arrested for essentially the same concealed-weapon offense, and both had their felony charges dismissed, were able to plead to a misdemeanor, and received probation.

The point here isn’t to rehabilitate a woke prosecutor or vindicate a dead, demented killer.  Criminals who use guns to commit crimes should absolutely get mandatory jail, and we’re well rid of prosecutors like Siemon who keep criminals at liberty solely because of their race.  But conservatives outraged that progressive policies left McRae at liberty and able to buy a firearm are attacking a straw man.  They’re arguing that otherwise lawful gun owners, even for minor or technical gun-possession violations, should be subject to a zero-tolerance, maximum-penalty standard, including automatic prison time and permanent loss of gun rights.  Not only is this not justice, but it gives too much power to a criminal justice system badly compromised right now by partisan actors who hold the rule of law in contempt.  Or haven’t we witnessed enough misconduct under color of law from rogues like Mike Nifong, Eric Holder, Kim Gardner, Emmett Sullivan, Merrick Garland, D.C. juries, and the squads of FBI conducting terror raids on pro-lifers, outspoken parents, and Capitol protesters?  Progressive “law enforcement” needs fewer arrows in its quiver, not more.  

“[T]oday’s liberalism cannot deal with the reality of evil,” wrote William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal, so they “inveigh against the instruments the evil use rather than the evil that motivates them.”  The ultimate blame for last week’s heinous murders lies with Anthony McRae’s madness -- and whatever malevolent power lies behind that.  The Left blames McRae’s gun for the MSU tragedy, but they’re blaming yours, too, and your freedom to possess it.  They don’t need our help in their campaign to take that freedom away.

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at

Image: Public Domain Pictures

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