Rick and Martha Omilian speak at a press conference to sign legislation to limit gun access to those convicted of domestic violence offenses on Nov. 20, 2023. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation aimed to keep guns out of abusers’ hands in Kalamazoo, 24 years after the tragic death of Maggie Wardle, 19, at the hands of an ex-boyfriend.
“I could jump for joy,” Maggie’s mother, Martha Omilian, told the Advance after Whitmer signed a series of bills that extend gun restrictions to those who are convicted of domestic violence-related crimes from just those with felonies to misdemeanors offenses.
“If one person … maybe somebody doesn’t have to go through this,” Martha said. “I will sit with this for the rest of my life. It’s the last thing I think about at night and the first thing I think about in the morning.”
On Oct. 18, 1999, Wardle was murdered in her Kalamazoo College dorm room by her ex-boyfriend, who was previously emotionally abusive to her.
Rick Omilian, Wardle’s stepfather, recalled at the bill signing the outpouring of support Kalamazoo College and the bill signings’ host, YWCA Kalamazoo, extended to them throughout the years.
“We know this room,” Omilian said, looking out at the crowd of YWCA employees, gun control advocates and lawmakers who supported the bills signed, as well as other gun control bills passed this year.
Current law bars those convicted of felonies associated with domestic violence-related offenses from possessing, carrying or distributing firearms for three years after the completion of their sentence. The ban can extend to up to five years for “specified felonies,” such as those involving threats or use of physical force.
Senate Bill 471, Senate Bill 528 and House Bill 4945 create an eight-year ban for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence-related offenses from possessing, carrying or distributing firearms. The legislation also expands offenses related to domestic violence that advocates said during the legislative process would more clearly encapsulate what domestic violence can entail.
One of the bills’ sponsors, state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said domestic violence tends to increase in severity, so early intervention is key.
“We know that domestic violence can escalate. What might be a more minor incident the first time or the second time, may become more violent and dangerous later on.”
And current repercussions for domestic violence related misdemeanors are not enough to create safety for survivors, Michigan Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence Public Policy Specialist Heath Lowry said during a September legislative hearing for some of the bills, adding that short stints in jail don’t have the same effect as the removal of weapons.
Chang added that about half of all women murdered in the U.S. are murdered by a current or former intimate partner and women are five times more likely to be murdered by an abusive partner when they have access to guns than when they do not.
Many survivors of domestic abuse and their families have come to the Capitol to ask lawmakers to pass this legislation, as well as other measures aimed to keep survivors safe. Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action, issued a statement Monday applauding those who have dedicated the time to pushing this legislation through.
“Governor Whitmer and Michigan lawmakers refused to stand idle while we wait for the Supreme Court’s decision in the Rahimi case — an outcome that could be a potential death sentence,” Ferrell-Zabala said. “Instead, they are actively showing up for women and families in Michigan. It’s my hope that other states will emulate Michigan’s example as they continue to champion common-sense gun safety laws.”
Many of those who spoke at the bill signing echoed that the bills are “common-sense bills” based on the real threat on a person’s life domestic abuse presents. Whitmer said the bills will save lives.
“These bills are based on a simple idea. If you have been found guilty in court of violently assaulting your partner, you should not be able to access a deadly weapon that you can use to further threaten harm or kill them, it’s just common sense,” Whitmer said.
And Wardle would be proud to see this day come, Martha Omilian said after the signing.
“She was a strong person, a very strong person, in spite of what happened to her,” Martha said of her daughter. “Some people might think, ‘Then how did she let [her ex-boyfriend] get away with that?’ But … she had compassion and empathy for other people. … This can happen to anybody … and there’s more that has to be done. … This is just the start.”
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