Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Gun Bill Dies Without Shots Being Fired

Despite overwhelming support for bill toughening penalties for felony firearms offenses, Alberta Darling and Republicans give up on it.

Sen. Alberta Darling

Sen. Alberta Darling

Recently this column discussed various efforts to toughen state gun laws, including a bill proposed by state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, to impose a mandatory three-year minimum sentence for felony firearms offenses.

Darling announced in August 2013 that she was having the bill drafted. But it was never introduced, despite public expressions of support from Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, also both Republican. Milwaukee city officials including Police Chief Edward Flynn have long sought this and other changes in the law.

In May, a 10-year-old girl was gravely wounded on a Milwaukee playground, in a shootout allegedly involving two illegally armed felons. After the shooting, some Democratic lawmakers speculated that interest groups pressured Darling to back down from the bill. Darling and her staff declined to comment.

So the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism filed a request with Darling’s office for her records on the bill. The 137 released pages provide some insight into what went on behind the scenes, but fall short of explaining why.

The proposed bill was in fact drafted, and on Aug. 28, 2013, Darling and Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, sent out a memo seeking co-sponsors. The memo said 85 percent of firearms crimes in Milwaukee involve individuals with previous criminal convictions, and noted that similar legislation passed by New York state in 2006 appears to have had a positive effect.

According to Richards’ office (Darling is still not talking), 15 other lawmakers asked to be co-sponsors, including four Republican Assembly reps: Joel Kleefisch, Tom Larson, Jeffrey Mursau and Pat Strachota. But in the Senate, no Republican besides Darling signed on.

Vos, through staff, did not respond to a request to explain why he passed on being a co-sponsor after declaring his support for the bill. A records request is pending.

Richards, a candidate for state attorney general, says “we worked on the bill and we were trying to refine it and gain support and we just ran out of time. What would have helped was more outspoken support from my Republican colleagues and more support from the attorney general’s office.”

The records from Darling’s office include articles, talking points and various correspondence. There are supportive communications from city of Milwaukee officials but almost no feedback from the public or outside interest groups, other than an email to a Darling staffer from James Fendry, who runs the advocacy group Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement.

Fendry, responding to a bill draft that Darling’s office had shared with him, raised a hypothetical concern about “some older hunter” being locked up for three years because of a long-forgotten bad check conviction he never knew was a felony. He argued that “many felons with guns are very low-level offenders, and are not likely to otherwise reoffend.” And he fretted about passing a statewide law to address a problem that exists “in just a few ZIP codes in Milwaukee.”

Despite these concerns, Fendry said his group, which was founded more than 30 years ago at the instigation of the National Rifle Association, would not oppose the bill’s passage “unless NRA strongly suggests that I do.”

Fendry, in an interview, says the NRA “never told me they had any particular position” on the proposed bill, and he never wavered from his lukewarm support.

“I don’t really care,” is he how he sums it up. “This may — and I emphasize may — be something that gun-rights people could have gotten behind on a statewide basis.” As he puts it, “If a person violates a gun law, whether we like the gun law or not, we really feel they deserve prosecution, they deserve the penalty.”

To review: This bill went belly up, despite being backed by city officials and prominent Republicans and possibly even the gun lobby. Imagine how hard it would be to enact gun law changes that encountered serious opposition.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

11 thoughts on “Gun Bill Dies Without Shots Being Fired”

  1. Andy says:

    There was an open records request for this?? At what point do these requests become frivolous??

    I’m all for these stricter penalties on felons with guns, but did looking into this really need an open records request that costs tax payers a lot of money every year? I think there are people that get a little carried away with these.

  2. PMD says:

    I’d like to know why Vos declined to be a co-sponsor after claiming to support the bill. Especially if the gun rights crowd wasn’t opposed to it.

  3. Dean Deardurff says:

    you do realize that any laws passed to prevent people from having the right to bear arms is illegal and not binding in any court of law. According to the U.S. Supreme Court. It would be as if it we’re never written… Please do some studying on the laws before commenting on them.. You just show your ignorance when doing so, and lack of your knowledge….

  4. PMD says:

    Speaking of studying, ignorance actually is a “lack of knowledge,” so you are being redundant Dean.

  5. Dean Deardurff says:

    PMD, is that your best?

  6. Dudemeister says:

    Dean, who are you responding to? The article author? This proposal in no way attempts to stop people from owning guns. It only proposes to punish felons who use firearms in their crimes.

    No one in the comments has yet even remotely suggested imposing limits on who can own firearms.

  7. Dean Deardurff says:

    Are you kidding me Dude? Is case you don’t already know. There already exist laws that prevent felons from having guns legally. How many more laws would satisfy you? Would just one more make a difference in the crime statistics? and if that didn’t work, one more? Chicago, having the strictest gun laws in the country. do you want there crime rate to be the model of all states and cities in America? I know they just need one more law and it would be paradise, and you can move there and be the safest person that ever walked the streets.

  8. PMD says:

    Nah it isn’t the best I’ve got. The best didn’t seem necessary considering the comment being responded to. In Chicago one major problem is that criminals travel to gun shows in Indiana, buy guns in bulk with no background check required, and then return to Chicago and sell them to other criminals. It’s more difficult to adopt a cat than it is to buy massive amounts of high-powered weaponry. That’s bonkers.

  9. Tom D says:

    Dean Deardurff, we have zero laws that “PREVENT” felons from having guns. Instead we have laws that make it illegal for felons to have guns (but because felons ignore the law, they have guns anyway).

    Saying that today’s laws “prevent” felons from having guns is as silly as saying that DUI laws “prevent” drunk driving.

    We need laws to record every gun transaction so that, if the gun is used or owned illegally, law enforcement can trace the chain of custody and prosecute the party who allowed a gun to pass to an illegal owner. Right now, in some states at least, it is perfectly legal for a “private gun owner” to sell to an unknown person without a background check or paper trail of any type.

    This loophole should be closed.

  10. Dean Deardurff says:

    Here I thought this was a serious discussion. When in fact it must be a joke.
    ” Dean Deardurff, we have zero laws that “PREVENT” felons from having guns. Instead we have laws that make it illegal for felons to have guns (but because felons ignore the law, they have guns anyway). ”

    “Saying that today’s laws “prevent” felons from having guns is as silly as saying that DUI laws “prevent” drunk driving.”

    I am relieved that you guys aren’t serious. You had me worried there for a while…….Getting guns from Indiana is another good one…..you guys……….lol…….Being from Indiana I’m just dumb-founded…..Is that the only state that doesn’t require a back ground check… My kids that live there will be happy to hear that now they won’t have to go through a background check..

    The analogy you used is a very very good one… just substitute dui laws and replace with guns laws..

    But it’s all a joke anyway….way to go… It’s very funny….I can also say when the reference to uninformed people? and low informative people…..you can see how obuma got reelected..
    THANKS for the LAUGH

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