Wisconsin Democratic Officials Unveil 'Red Flag' Gun Law Proposal

Sep 20, 2019

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic lawmakers unveiled a proposal for a "red flag" bill Thursday.

The bill would allow judges to seize guns from someone they determine to be a threat. Democrats say the bill should be nonpartisan and is about saving lives. Republicans say the bill is a non-starter.

The red flag bill was announced on the heels of a universal background check bill introduced in August. The bills come in wake of several mass shootings across the country.

Evers says the issue should be nonpartisan.

"The recent Marquette University poll shows that Wisconsinites not only overwhelmingly support universal background checks, but 81% of Wisconsinites support creating an extreme risk protection order process to remove guns from people who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others," says Evers.

READ: Americans Largely Support Gun Restrictions To 'Do Something' About Gun Violence

The “extreme risk” protection order laws are also known as red flag laws. They have been passed in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul says judges already have similar powers in other contexts in Wisconsin — for instance, as part of domestic abuse injunctions.

“Actually in those cases, one of the options is that firearms can be ordered to be seized," explains Kaul. "What this does is it expands on that, so if somebody is a threat to themselves or others for another reason, this would give law enforcement a tool to take action. It would also allow family and household members to take action."

What Kaul means by “take action” is that police, family or household members could petition a judge to order someone to surrender their firearms. The judge can do that if they find the person is “substantially likely to injure themselves or others.”

READ: Could Reframing Gun Violence As A Public Health Crisis Help Solve The Problem? 

Kaul also notes the state’s emergency detention law allows judges to detain people who are in a mental health crisis, including those who are a threat to themselves or others.

But he says a red flag law is different because it doesn’t involve taking someone into custody.

“This is a much more limited remedy, this is requiring someone to surrender their firearms, not to lose their liberty as can happen in an emergency detention,” distinguishes Kaul.

Anyone required to surrender their guns under this proposal could be ordered to do so for up to a year—with the possibility of extension.

At Thursday’s press conference, Evers also responded to a reporter’s question as to whether he would support assault weapons buybacks. That type of law would require gun owners to sell their assault-style weapons back to the government. 

“I’d consider it," says Evers. "But my focus is on these two bills and on the two offices that would either prevent it from going to a hearing and to a vote or not.”

The two offices Evers’ is referring to are Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. The two Republicans are not fans of the proposal.

They released a statement, saying they believe the legislation poses threats to due process and the Second Amendment. They say Evers’ answer on the assault weapons buyback revealed an agenda to take away lawfully owned firearms.

Fitzgerald and Vos say they are focusing on school safety grants, the mental health care system and the suicide prevention task force.

Evers can't force Republicans – who control the Legislature — to take up the proposals. The governor has said he may call a special session on the bills, but the move would be mostly symbolic.

Editor's note: The audio in this story was courtesy of Wisconsin Eye.