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What's the status of gun safety legislation in Wisconsin?

Mariusz Blach
Adobe Stock
In Wisconsin, Democratic legislators are trying to press the issue of gun restrictions to an unreceptive Republican majority.

America continues to be plagued by relentless mass shootings and rising homicide rates in cities.

In Wisconsin, legislative Democrats and Republicans have diametrically opposed views on how to tackle the problems. Democrats say easy access to guns is a public health issue, while Republicans hold tight to the Second Amendment.

At a press conference Thursday on tightening gun access, Democratic State Sen. Melissa Agard of Madison said she had to change things up last minute because of the onslaught of mass shootings happening in real time.

“Frankly, what does it say about the state of gun violence the United States of America when I had to revise my remarks that I just finished writing last night, early this morning because there were at least three more shootings just in that period of time,” she lamented. “Tulsa, Los Angeles and Pittston, Pennsylvania and I'm sure there are others that I'm not even mentioning.”

Agard called it a sad reality, both mass shootings and daily gun violence.

State Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee said the city’s ShotSpotter system has detected tens of thousands of gunshots. More than 53,000 actual gunshots in the city from 2017 through 2021. She said there have been 699 homicides in those five years.

Johnson said we need to take action. “So that no other families like that of Sierra Guyton, age 10; Laylah Petersen, age five; baby Bill Thao, 13 months; Sandra Parks, 13 years old; Brooklyn Harris, age three; or Ta’Niyla Parker, age 11 would have to endure the unthinkable tragedy of having to bury a child. In the city of Milwaukee, there have been many more children that have fallen victims to gun homicides.”

“As a matter of fact, there are too many to mention here,” she said.

The two Democratic legislators were flanked by colleagues and concerned citizens asking for what they call “common sense gun reform” — something they’ve been pushing for years.

Those attending included Darryl Morin of the 80% Coalition, a non-partisan group of advocacy, business, faith and service organizations.

Morin said the group has two legislative priorities. “The first is to see the closure of the background check loopholes that allow violent felons today to go out and easily purchase firearms, either online or in person. The second is to allow for ERPOs (extreme risk protection orders), better known as red flag laws, that way law enforcement as well as family members will be able to petition a court if they know of an individual with a firearm who's in imminent danger of hurting themselves or hurting others."

Morin referenced the El Paso domestic terror attack at a Walmart in 2019. A 21-year-old far-right gunman was charged with hate crimes, accused of opening fire with an AK-47 and killing 23 people. He said the gun could have been taken away preemptively if Texas had a red flag law.

“Because the mother of the shooter in El Paso two weeks prior to one of the greatest tragedies in our nation's history, called and pled with members of law enforcement to come and take the AK 47 away from her. ... She told them he wasn't mentally fit that he was a danger to himself and others if they did not take that fire away firearm away from him," Morin said.

Morin said their only response was, “Sorry, ma'am. We don't have a red flag law in our state.”

WUWM reached out to more than a half dozen Republican legislative leaders who either did not respond or were unavailable for comment within the deadline for the story.

We heard from GOP State Rep. John Spiros of Marshfield, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice & Public Safety, who said the GOP-led Legislature has made investments in mental health and school safety.

He wrote that Wisconsin currently has a robust background check system, which includes background checks for handguns through the state’s Department of Justice and through the FBI for long guns.

Democrats say expanded background checks are needed because currently they’re required for sales from federally licensed dealers but not for private sales.

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, proposed in his 2021-2022 state budget to require all firearm sales to go through federally licensed dealers so all guns have background checks. This provision was removed by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee.

In 2019, when Democrats first unveiled their proposals, Republican leaders spoke out against them.

The Associated Press reported that then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos insisted both proposals infringe on Second Amendment gun rights. Vos said he opposed the red flag law because it would allow for confiscation of weapons if there’s a suspicion someone may do something wrong.

The AP reported that Vos said, “Even when you yell fire in a crowded theater, it happens first and you’re prosecuted after, I don’t understand those who would want to take away our constitutional rights on an idea or a threat.”

At the time, Republicans gaveled in and out of a special session on guns called by Evers, and instead, sponsored a bill that would make grants available to gun shop owners to store guns from people who voluntarily give them up.

In January of this year, the GOP-led Wisconsin Assembly approved a package of bills from Republicans that would have dramatically expanded gun rights in the state. Including by lowering the minimum age for obtaining a concealed carry license from 21 to 18. Evers vetoed those bills in April.

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