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On Point: Study reveals increase in Michigan's gun-violence death rates

Damon Brown scar.JPG
Damon Brown scar.JPG

Gun-related deaths across the country have increased by 17% since 2008 - and a national study confirms that Michigan is not immune.

Michigan's gun-related death rate increase by 12.8 percent during the study period, from 2009-2016, according to the April report by the Violence Policy Center. The study, titled Gun Violence in the Great Lakes States, also revealed that Michigan rated higher than the national average when it came to firearm homicides.

In Battle Creek, where several young men have died in gun violence in recent years, Damon Brown and Tim Reese are working to reverse that trend.

"I was about 16 years old when I got shot. It went through right here," Brown said, pointing to a scar on his arm. "Broke one of the bones, came out right here."

"It woke me up," Brown said.

The scar is both a constant reminder of his previous life, and a direct example of what he and Reese are working to end in their community. Their goal is to interrupt violence through prevention and intervention. To do it, they created an organization they call R.I.S.E, which stands for reintegration to support and empower.

Reese, a former teacher who has seen many students go down the wrong path, described their partnership as "he lived it, I worked it."

Brown said he once saw himself going down that wrong path, but found a way to turn it around.

"I've seen these types of things since I was a kid. And it's generational. It is a disease," he said.

The Violence Policy Center is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that works in support of policies to reduce gun deaths and injuries. Josh Sugarmann, the center's executive director, said the organization approaches gun violence as a public health issue.

"When you look at state like Michigan, which is a fairly pro-gun state, you know, even those who support absolute gun rights should be concerned about some of the numbers that we've come up with," Sugarmann said.

"The state has a gun violence problem, and the answer is not more guns," Sugarmann said. "It's not loosening the state's concealed carry laws. It's looking at the reality of what gun violence in the state is, the types of guns that are being used, and then having an honest discussion about how do you protect the population from this type of violence."

He also said state gun laws preempting individual communities can prevent the creation of local laws to protect their residents.

Particularly troubling, Sugarmman said, is that the center's report found Michigan ranked seventh among all states in black homicide victimization.

"Ninety-one percent of the victims were killed by guns. So right off the bat, it's clear that, that's an issue that should be explored," Sugarmann said.

Brown and Reese said they're trying to reach youth before they get involved in violence. They're also trying to understand the underlying issues that lead to violence. They said lack of education and fear play major roles.

"Why do people do these things," Brown said. "You know, what type of elements are individuals dealing with that perpetuates this type of mindset?"

Reese added, "It not only destroys their life, it destroys their family's life and all those that are close to them, just that split second."

They both said solving the issue is not as simple as getting rid of guns.

"Is that realistic? You know, that all guns are going to be off the street? You know, you have a whole other group of people that feel like they have the right to bear arms," Brown said.

Jonathan Southwick supports the right to bear arms. He said it's a right that shouldn't be taken away.

"Once you start taking away our rights, then we're no longer free," Southwick said. "We're not anything. We're whatever we're told. And that's not just guns."

Southwick owns the outdoor equipment shop Southwick's in Plainwell, which offers a large selection of guns, as well as a shooting range and training courses so gun owners can learn to handle weapons safely and responsibly.

"A gun is just another tool," Southwick said. "People that want to kill people are going to do it."

Sugarmann said that while reducing gun violence might be more complicated than just removing guns, the purpose of the Great Lakes study was to provide another tool for people to use in trying to make a difference.

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