Wisconsin Public Radio

State Leaders Divided Over Gun Laws

In the aftermath of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Democrats push for "red flag" laws, Republicans balk.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Aug 7th, 2019 12:57 pm
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Guns. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Guns. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Wisconsin lawmakers and activists are clashing this week over potential changes to state gun laws in the wake of two mass shootings in Ohio and Texas over the weekend.

The killings have spurred renewed conversation about the role of state regulations in curbing gun violence, with state Democrats largely pushing for new restrictions while Republicans argue state laws are sufficient.

The conversation is happening as the state marks the seventh anniversary of a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek that killed six people.

Gov. Tony Evers on Monday called for lawmakers to take up new restrictions, including universal background checks and a so-called “red flag” law.

Proposals Include ‘Red Flag’ Law

Several states enacted “red flag” laws, also known as extreme risk protective orders, in the wake of the deadly attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. A number of reports following that shooting highlighted warning signs exhibited by the shooter.

Under such laws, law enforcement notified by family or friends can petition a judge to temporarily revoke someone’s right to buy, own or carry weapons.

Proponents of red flag legislation in Wisconsin say friends and family of potentially dangerous individuals should be able to act when they see early signs of potential violence.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, who is sponsoring the legislation, released a statement Monday saying the plan would help prevent mass shootings.

“Our children are dying. Our friends and neighbors are dying. At the grocery store. At the bar. At school. At the movies. At church,” Sargent said. “Although we cannot change the past, we must continue, today and every day, to fight like hell for the living.”

The plan is one of several backed by The Wisconsin Coalition for Gun Safety, a group of advocacy organizations, lawmakers and individuals in favor of stricter firearm laws.

Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which is a member of the coalition, said the proposal has yielded results in other states, particularly in preventing suicides.

“It’s a policy we know would have an impact,” Bonavia said.

Other proposals pushed by the coalition include universal background checks for gun sales, which would require checks for online sales and transactions at gun shows, and a tax exemption for gun safes, which is aimed at encouraging more individuals to lock up their firearms at home.

Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, has also proposed a series of bills related to gun storage, including a plan that would require gun stores to lock up their wares after closing time.

In a statement released Tuesday, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, criticized Republican lawmakers who control the state Legislature for their previous pushback on potential changes.

“People should feel safe in their communities, and yet the vast majority of Wisconsinites are currently represented by politicians who won’t even discuss the most basic steps that can be taken to protect the public and prevent these terrifying acts of violence,” Hintz said.

Republican Leaders Push Back On Changes

While GOP leaders of the state Legislature have expressed their sympathies for the shooting victims and their families this week, they are largely silent on proposed changes to state law.

“The events that took place this weekend were tragic. Hate and racism have no place in our country,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in a prepared statement. “As we come back for the fall session, our caucus will have discussions around all newly proposed legislation like we always do.”

Fitzgerald’s office did not respond to questions about the senator’s position on proposals currently before the Legislature or other possible actions.

However, Fitzgerald indicated earlier this year the “red flag” proposal is unlikely to get support in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“I don’t support the government intervening to take firearms from citizens without due process,” Fitzgerald told WPR in February. “Without seeing any specific legislation yet, I’m concerned that what I’ve seen discussed publicly has been too broad and could result in situations where that occurs.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on current or future gun proposals in the Legislature.

However, Vos tweeted that he looks forward to meeting with Evers next week to talk about proposals.

“I will not entertain proposals to take away second amendment rights or due process,” he said. “Hopefully, we can find common ground on the real problem by addressing the mental health issues facing Wisconsin.”

Vos said earlier this year he could be open to supporting a red flag law, but that it would be need to be limited in scope.

Bonavia criticized the lawmakers for not moving quickly on state law changes this week.

“It’s inexcusable,” she said. “We know that these policies would be effective and we know that they’re supported by the vast majority of Wisconsinites.”

According to a March 2018 Marquette University Law School poll, 81 percent of Wisconsin residents support background checks for gun purchases online and at gun shows. Polling wasn’t conducted by the group on other specific gun-related proposals, though a broad question about the efficacy of gun control measures found 43 percent of respondents thought the laws wouldn’t deter mass shootings.

“What we’re seeing playing out here are a group of legislators who are more responsive to the NRA, to a special interest group, than they are to their own constituents and to the needs of the citizens of Wisconsin,” Bonavia said.

In February 2018, Democratic lawmakers attempted to bring the background check proposal up for a vote in the state Assembly, but GOP lawmakers used procedural moves to avoid the vote and replaced the measure with a proposal to fund grants for schools to provide firearms to safety officers and crack down on so-called “straw purchasers” in Wisconsin.

Since 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature has passed a number of bills softening restrictions on guns in Wisconsin. That includes repealing a 48-hour waiting period for gun sales in 2015 and approving the state’s concealed carry law in 2011.

State-based advocacy group Wisconsin Gun Owners, Inc., and a lobbyist for Wisconsin Firearm Owners did not respond to requests for comment about the status of Wisconsin gun laws and support or opposition of any changes.

State Gun Regulations Fall In Middle Of Pack

Wisconsin falls roughly in the middle of all 50 states in terms of gun restrictions and freedoms, according to a survey of national assessments.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national nonprofit that promotes stricter gun laws, ranks Wisconsin 18 out of all 50 states for the strength of its gun control measures.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, ranks Wisconsin 15 out of all 50 states for freedoms related to gun ownership.

Aside from those partisan groups, a non-partisan, 2019 study from The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal, placed Wisconsin among states with some of the most permissive gun laws in the country, but pegged it as one of the most restrictive states in that cluster.

Listen to the WPR report here.

In Wake Of Mass Shootings, Wisconsin Leaders Remain Divided Over Gun Laws was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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One thought on “State Leaders Divided Over Gun Laws”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    A thought: there are two good ways to understand a problem: look at its history (what is the story?) and do a comparison (what is it like/unlike?) And, then ask yourself are there is insoluble problems? In this case, are the problems (mass shootings and everyday gun violence) insoluble?

    First, the history. As someone who grew up in Milwaukee many years ago, I can say with complete certainty that there was almost no gun violence anywhere in the city. Nor were there many guns, the exceptions being hunting rifles when hunting was far more popular than today, and bb guns for kids.

    What happened? In the most basic sense, the NRA happened and became the marketing and lobbying arm for the gun manufacturers and, over time, for far right and openly racist positions. As the Republican Party morphed into the White People’s Party, these positions hardened into dogma, which includes:
    * guns to protect your home from invasion by a black man and the flip side of the racial dimension, gun violence in the “inner city” is okay for two reasons, “they’re killing each other,” and it proves white people are superior
    * get a gun before the liberals try to take them away, and we hate liberals, therefore guns are good
    *the Second Amendment as the most important part of the Constitution, therefore, people must have access to even the most powerful weapons because to take those away would lead to the slippery slope/your guns are next outcome.
    *and, finally, the current favorite, it’s not about guns it is about crazy people, but even then, we can’t keep them from getting guns because that might infringe on the rights of the non-crazy gun people.

    Next, there is the comparative argument where it all falls apart. Every country has crazy people and violent people, proportionately probably as many as we do. Almost every country has social tensions among groups. But no country has anywhere near the levels of gun violence – nor the number of guns – that we have in the United States. It is about the guns.

    As the post massacre-Gurney, post-El Paso, post-Dayton sterile debate begins, (see Ron Johnson’s responses for an excellent example of where we are), and we await the next mass shooting, it is becoming clear that, for the United States, this may be an insoluble problem. Just get used to the idea that when you go to the mall, the movies and entertainment or sporting event or your kids go to school, that there is some small chance that they will be shot and killed or wounded and maimed for life, or, at a minimum, traumatized, and that, in the normal course of these experiences, our lives will now be dominated by metal detectors and related security considerations.

    As Tolstoy said, “There are no conditions to which a person cannot become accustomed, especially if they see everyone around them living in the same way.” Or as President Trump’s trusted friend and advisor Sean Hannity has suggested, why not turn the permitters of schools, shopping malls and entertainment centers into armed camps by employing hundreds of thousands of heavily armed retired “first responders,” America’s current hero class. We’ve gotten used to this. We would get used to that.

    There is another reality, which is that state laws are a weak response in any circumstance. They can help, which explains why those states with strict laws are less dangerous. But guns are fungible, as Chicago has demonstrated, and state lines are not – at least not yet – hard borders.

    Which leaves only a couple of other options: the Republican/NRA solution, which is that everyone should arm themself, except crazy people who should get mental health care from Republican governments that continuously reduce mental health funding; stay in your house; or migrate to a safer country, an option that a surprising number of people seem to be exercising,.

    Or consider the previously unthinkable: peacefully separate the United States into the three countries it has become, with the coastal “nations” having strict gun controls and “hard” borders and the South, Midwest and mountain/plains nation being a free fire zone. Why isn’t this option preferable to an average of more than one-a-day mass shootings and widespread everyday gun violence in much of the rest of the country, especially impoverished inner cities? After saying how absurd the suggestion is, Ron Johnson and the gang should answer that question.

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