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The 2024 Republican National Convention will be in Milwaukee July 15-18, 2024.

Understanding Wisconsin's weapon laws ahead of Republican National Convention

Understanding gun deaths in Wisconsin
Sebastian Gelbke/eyegelb
Understanding gun deaths in Wisconsin

The Republican National Convention is estimated to attract about 50,000 people to Milwaukee. The tens of thousands in attendance will include delegates, law enforcement, out-of-state visitors and protesters that plan to march each day.

Some city officials and Milwaukeeans are concerned about the possible influx of guns downtown during the event. Attorney Tony Cotton detailed Wisconin's weapon laws and explained why attempts to temporarily regulate weapons during the event have failed.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain what are Wisconsin's weapons laws?

Wisconsin, of course, is a CCW state. That means that people can apply for a concealed carry permit. Once they get that permit, they can possess a weapon in a concealed way. So, if you have a CCW permit, you can, considering firearms for example, conceal your gun and carry it wherever you want; subject to restrictions that certain businesses may have on whether or not they permit firearms in their facility. Wisconsin is also an open carry state, so you could choose not to be a CCW holder and just have your assault rifle slung over the front of your chest and walked down the road.

How do those laws apply to people from out of state?

There's not an in-state, out-of-state distinction. The CCW thing, obviously, you'd have to — if you're an out of state resident — apply for a CCW permit, but the open carry laws apply equally to every citizen who's not a prohibited person from possessing firearms. There's a whole category of people who can't possess firearms because they have a felony conviction or they have a domestic violence crime. Those people can't possess guns and there's all sorts of other prohibited categories. Out of state people, if they are not a felon and not prohibited, they can carry a gun in the open or they can get a CCW permit and conceal their gun.

Looking ahead to the RNC in mid-July, there will be a hard perimeter that the Secret Service will oversee where weapons won't be allowed. Outside of that security zone, will there be any restrictions on open or concealed carrying?

There are not, and there can't be restrictions in general on open carry. It's clear that you have the right to possess firearms if you're not a prohibited person. Can there be narrow exceptions such as government buildings having some restrictions on that and private businesses? Yes, but outside of that hard perimeter zone, you could very well see people choosing to open, carry or possess guns in the open. One thing that just comes to my mind is when we had some of the BLM protests, for example, that were happening. So, this is the left side of the spectrum, arguably. I was involved in some of these groups in helping provide legal advice. There were numerous people just walking down the road with assault rifles slung right over the front of their chest and the police can't and won't do a thing about it.

In your experience, what are some concerns that people have — just questions that they ask or after already experiencing some of these situations and encountering them, what are some of the concerns that they share?

Well, I'm a criminal defense attorney. So, usually, when people are reaching out to me, they have a concern about their own situation. It's very personal and very unique. I get a lot of phone calls these days from people who have, not felony convictions, but old domestic violence convictions, you know, maybe disorderly conduct or battery, something that happened 25 years ago with a roommate or 15 years ago with an ex-girlfriend. I get calls every day, multiple calls a week in, and virtually every day from people who want to know: Can they possess a firearm? The other things I hear from people — obviously, I'm just a member of the community — I hear about people who express concern about some of the relaxed firearm laws in Wisconsin. But that's for the policymakers to work on, and obviously not my role as a defense attorney.

Some city officials have supported temporary weapon regulations during the RNC, but the Common Council ultimately voted against implementing that. Can you explain how a temporary gun ban conflicts with state law?

Well, I think it just conflicts with the Constitution. You have a right to keep and bear arms and of course the federal Constitution, the Second Amendment has clearly been interpreted by this current Supreme Court and past iterations of the Supreme Court as absolutely conferring and providing an individual right to possess and bear firearms. Any ordinance that would be passed to temporarily restrict that right would be struck down immediately in court.

Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
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