The event was designed to foster a civil discussion among those holding divergent views on gun violence, and its causes and possible solutions, in the wake of events such as the Sandy Hook school shooting late last year.
“This is an exercise in participatory democracy, and it makes me feel wonderful,” said Devin Schindler, a Cooley Law School professor. “It is our duty to be actively engaged in the process of self-government.”
Schindler, who addressed the more than 100 people attending the forum at the Grand Haven Community Center, said the language of the Second Amendment has room for ambiguity.
“Is this a state’s rights issue or a personal freedom issue?” Schindler asked.
Steve Dulan, of the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners, answered that question.
“Our position is that gun ownership is a fundamental right, it’s protected by law, and it is a good idea,” he said. “I grew up in the U.P. and my dad owned a gun shop. I’ve been shooting since I was a little kid, and it was shocking to me that people wanted to take our guns away.”
Former state Sen. Wayne Kuipers viewed gun ownership in a similar light.
“I think that people have a fundamental right to gun ownership,” he said. “You don’t have a right to a car, you don’t have a right to a home, but you have the right to a gun.”
Kuipers said there would need to be a really good reason for gun ownership to be limited.
Joining in the discussion were Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz; Dr. Lia Gaggino, a Kalamazoo pediatrician and president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Keith Konarska, superintendent of Grand Haven Area Public Schools; and Jane Longstreet of Ottawa County Community Mental Health.
Frantz said the prevalence for gun violence in Ottawa County is relatively low.
“We have a great community with low crime and low gun violence,” he said. “We’ve found a way to behave in a civil manner without much violence.”
Despite this low rate, Frantz said that there have been violent actions in the community that involved guns and violence that didn’t involve guns. He also pointed out gang activity in the Holland area includes use of firearms.
In addition to the criminal component, Longstreet pointed out how it is important to make sure that the mental health aspect of gun violence and gun control is addressed.
“In my line of work, we’re concerned with helping people stay alive,” she said. “There’s a great correlation between the availability of guns and the completion of suicide.”
Longstreet noted that her agency works with victims and survivors of suicide, and also works to make sure residents' mental health needs are addressed. She favors a more restricted access to guns.
“We need to do everything we can to provide access to mental health treatment to those who need it,” she said. “People with mental illness are often marginalized, stigmatized, and they’re discriminated against.”
Panelists also discussed the impacts of guns on children.
“Obviously, the safety of our children is a top priority for all of us,” Konarska said. “We’re fortunate we haven’t had any guns in our schools, and we hope that continues.”
There is a police officer stationed at Grand Haven High School, and officers also spend time at other schools in the district.
“Their presence is not all-day, every day — but it is frequent enough that they are visible,” Konarska said. “That’s gone a long way in helping our families feel safe and secure in our buildings.”
When asked whether he thought more should be done to promote school safety, Konarska said he felt current measures went a good distance.
“I’d hate for our schools to become lock-down facilities and create the appearance of a prison-type setting,” he said.