A long wait yields expansive new freedoms in Wisconsin

NRA calls state's new concealed-carry law 'one of nation's strongest'

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 Updated:

Auric Gold says concealed carry in Wisconsin was “worth the wait, because we got a better law.” 

Eric Tadsen

Bob Jauch has earned his “F” grade from the National Rifle Association. The Democratic Wisconsin state senator from Poplar has long fought the gun lobby’s efforts to let state residents carry concealed weapons.

In 2004 and again in 2006, Jauch voted against overriding Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s veto of a concealed carry bill. Both times, his colleagues in the Senate voted to override, in 2004 drawing this bitter reaction from Jauch: “The NRA won today.”

Both times, the Assembly fell narrowly short of mustering the requisite two-thirds vote.

This year, following the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP majorities in both houses, concealed carry was back. Jauch voted against the bill in committee, and pushed amendments to automatically ban concealed weapons from places including the state Capitol, child care centers, churches and bars. All were defeated.

But Jauch ended up voting for the final bill anyway.

“I think the mood of the public has changed,” Jauch explained in a letter to constituents. And while he does not expect to see a reduction in crime, which is already much lower in Wisconsin than the national average, Jauch wrote that “there is no evidence that concealed carry in other states has endangered the public or led to a rampant misuse of firearms.”

Wisconsin’s new law, which took effect Nov. 1, leaves Illinois as the lone state with a blanket ban on carrying concealed weapons. The NRA and its supporters have been picking off holdout states for years (in 2002 there were six), and pushing for the expansion of those rights in states that allow concealed carry.

The NRA hailed Wisconsin’s law as “one of the nation’s strongest.”

“The odd thing about Wisconsin is that we went right from prohibition to no precautions whatsoever,” says Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, a statewide advocacy group that focuses on gun-violence prevention. “Our law doesn’t have as many safeguards or restrictions as other states.”

Auric Gold, secretary of the pro-gun-rights group Wisconsin Carry Inc., agrees that the law offers more expansive rights than earlier attempts: “I might say it was worth the wait, because we got a better law than the one that was vetoed by Gov. Doyle.”

“It’s a great law,” agrees Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman with the NRA’s national office in Fairfax, Va. “We’re very happy.”

Not for the squeamish

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, a cosponsor of Wisconsin’s concealed-carry bill, offers a simple explanation for why the law that passed is stronger than early versions that failed. He says that in the past, when passage hinged on swinging a vote or two to override a gubernatorial veto, bill drafters had to deal with the concerns of “the most squeamish” potential supporters.

“But here, if the most squeamish person says, ‘I’m not going to vote for it unless there’s this and this,” then you can say, ‘Don’t vote for it, we have the votes anyway.’ ”

Wisconsin’s concealed-carry law allows anyone 21 or older to apply for a license, which costs $50 and is good for five years. Only a small group of individuals — including convicted felons and persons with domestic abuse restraining orders against them — may be denied a license. The allowable weapons include handguns, knives, billy clubs and stun guns.

The freedom to concealed carry is automatically suspended in only a few places, such as law enforcement offices, courthouses and schools. Businesses and government buildings may choose to prohibit weapons by posting signs at every entrance, but no bans may be enacted on the state Capitol grounds or the open areas of city and state parks, college campuses, and public zoos.

Gov. Walker’s Department of Administration has opted to allow concealed weapons in most areas of the state Capitol and other state government buildings. Lawmakers have set their own policies as to where weapons are permitted; the Assembly has decided to allow weapons in the gallery, from which even cameras are banned. Both houses will let members pack heat on the floor.

License holders may bring concealed handguns into taverns, so long as they don’t drink while there. Weapons are not automatically banned in airports, except past security checkpoints. And employers may not prevent their license-holding employees from keeping concealed weapons in their vehicles, even when parked on company property or used in connection with their job.

The database of concealed carry license holders will be kept secret. Law enforcement officers may access it to confirm that a person who fails to produce a license on request (a $25 fine, refundable if produced within 48 hours) is indeed licensed, but cannot routinely check the database when they stop a vehicle.

This bothers Doug Pettit, chief of police in the village of Oregon and chairman of the legislative committee for the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, who says law enforcement officers believe “more information is better than the lack of information.”

Pettit also feels the law is too lax in terms of who can get a concealed carry license, saying the narrow list of exemptions would not include, for instance, a gang member in Milwaukee with multiple felony charges that were all pleaded down to misdemeanors.

Concerns have also been raised about the level of training needed to obtain a license.

The law as passed said the training requirement can be met by taking a basic hunter education course, like those offered by the state Department of Natural Resources. Critics note that these courses focus on rifles and shotguns, not handguns, and do not teach about using weapons in crisis situations.

Says Pettit, “It just concerns me that some individuals may decide to get a concealed carry license even though they’re not familiar with the weapon and are not trained properly.” Police officers, he notes, receive extensive instruction on the use of firearms under stress -- learning, for instance, to always look beyond their target to see if others are in the line of fire.

In response to such concerns, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, drafted an administrative rule to require at least four hours of training, including some hands-on. But this rule drew howls of protest from the NRA, and was struck down by the state Legislature in early November.

Explained Sen. Grothman, a member of the committee that killed the four-hour rule, “There's no reason why we have to micromanage how people obtain their concealed carry permit.”

State residents were not able to apply for permits until the law took effect, on Nov. 1. State officials say more than 30,000 applications for concealed carry licenses were received in just the first week.

‘The NRA power myth’

Bonavia argues that the Wisconsin public has never been as keen on concealed carry as have members of the state Legislature. And even among lawmakers, Bonavia doesn’t know “if they were as persuaded of the need for concealed carry as they were of the need to vote for it.”

Many politicians, she says, believe “it’s political suicide to vote against the NRA.” They’ve “bought into the NRA power myth.” 

In fact, the NRA doesn’t always get its way.

Despite considerable NRA support, one of Wisconsin’s leading gun-rights advocates, state Sen. David Zien, R-Eau Claire, was defeated in his bid for reelection in 2006. And state Rep. Gary Sherman, D-Port Wing, an NRA member who switched positions to cast the deciding vote against overriding Doyle’s veto of concealed carry in 2004, won re-election that year and on two subsequent occasions.

Sherman, now a state appellate court judge, recalls that the NRA did target him, running a full-page ad in the Ashland Daily Press and backing his opponent. But the feedback he got from constituents was “overwhelmingly in favor of the governor’s veto.” As for the NRA’s supposed clout, Sherman says, “I’ve never been under the impression that any organization could wield as much power with the electorate as the NRA claims.”

Parsons rejects this analysis, saying “The reason we are so powerful is that our members vote and they contact their legislators.”

There’s more to it than that. The NRA Political Victory Fund has reported making more than $200,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of state candidates since mid-2008, state records show.

The NRA also maintains a formidable lobbying presence. In the first six months of 2011, the group reported spending $66,658 on 415 hours of lobbying in Wisconsin, 76 percent of which was devoted to the concealed carry bill, state records show. It registered four lobbyists, all from the group’s national headquarters in Fairfax, Va.

Another group, Wisconsin Gun Owners Inc., reported spending $78,516 on 364 hours of lobbying during this period, half on the successful concealed carry bill. In all, proponents of concealed carry reported spending a total of 541 hours on lobbying, compared to 205 hours reported by groups opposed.

The office of state Sen. Pam Galloway, R-Wausau, the bill’s lead sponsor, confirms that the NRA was among “a number of groups that reached out to provide input” during the bill-drafting process.

A non-issue in the making?

A few Wisconsin communities, including Germantown in Washington County and Sturtevant in Racine County, have voted to allow concealed weapons in most municipal buildings. But many more have taken steps to prohibit these, as the law allows.

State Rep. Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, a leading opponent of concealed carry in Wisconsin, sees this as significant: “If there was such a great desire for this policy in Wisconsin, why are those who can prohibit it doing so?”

And officials are chafing at their inability to keep weapons out of some areas, like the open areas of parks and college campuses.

“Factually speaking, it significantly diminishes our ability to keep weapons off campus,” says David Giroux, spokesman for the 26-campus University of Wisconsin System, which opposed the change. “The new law creates a much more complex environment for us.” Indeed, it means that every campus in the system will post signs against weapons in buildings, at a total of at least 12,000 doors.

Some businesses are also reacting uncomfortably to the change. “They would prefer to have zero tolerance -- no weapons on the premises, period,” says Keith Kopplin, a lawyer with the Milwaukee law firm of Krukowski & Costello, which advises employers. Yet now any weapons ban must generally exclude the personal vehicles of workers with concealed carry licenses.

Other businesses are posting signs. Hawk Sullivan, the owner of three popular Madison-area bars, is prohibiting weapons at all of them: “If I see someone with a gun, I’ll call the police.”

Gun rights advocate Gold, an NRA-certified firearms instructor (although not a current NRA member), has over the past several years regularly carried weapons openly in and around his home in Madison, as when he walks through his neighborhood or goes to the grocery store. He says the new law will give him another option, when the situation warrants it.

Gold thinks Wisconsin’s experience will be similar to other states, where concealed carry gradually becomes “a non-issue with most people.” They hear alarms about “blood running in the streets,” but no such thing occurs.

Sen. Grothman agrees. “You watch too much TV if you think the average citizen is just ready to go off at the drop of a hat,” he says, adding that he believes concealed carry license holders “are far more responsible than the population as a whole.”

Indeed, Grothman thinks it’s “ridiculous” that there was talk of designating the state Capitol as a place where weapons are not allowed, which the Walker administration declined to do. “It’s a little hypocritical if lawmakers say we don’t want concealed carry where we work,” he says. “We’re telling everybody else out there, ‘Don’t worry.’ ”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. 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.

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Concealed carry in Wisconsin: A timeline

 

1848: Wisconsin becomes a state.

 

1872: The state passes a law prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons, except by “a peace officer.”

 

1998: Wisconsin voters approve a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of state residents to bear and keep arms for any “lawful purpose.”

 

1999: A bill to let state residents carry concealed weapons is introduced in the state Legislature. It does not pass. As of the end of 2008, eight other such bills will be introduced, all unsuccessful.

 

2003: The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in separate cases, upholds the conviction of a man who had two concealed handguns in his vehicle absent any specific or imminent threat, but tosses the conviction of a Milwaukee shop owner in a high-crime Milwaukee neighborhood who kept a loaded gun hidden behind a counter.

 

Late 2003: The state Legislature overwhelming passes and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoes a bill to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons.

 

Early 2004: The Senate votes 23-10 to override Doyle’s veto, but a veto override attempt in the Assembly falls one vote short of the requisite two-thirds majority. The vote was 65-34.

 

January 2006: Gov. Jim Doyle vetoes a concealed carry bill passed by the Legislature, leaving Wisconsin as one of four states to have an absolute prohibition. Again, a veto override attempt narrowly fails. The vote in the Assembly was 64-34.

 

April 2009: J.B. Van Hollen, Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general, issues an advisory memo to prosecutors ruling that nothing in Wisconsin law prohibits state residents from carrying firearms openly, in plain view.

 

November 2010: Wisconsin elects Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP gains control of both houses of the state Legislature.

 

May 10, 2011: A new concealed carry bill is introduced in Wisconsin. In its original form it creates a blanket right to carry concealed weapons, with no licensing or training requirement.

 

June 9: The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approves an amended version of the bill that includes licensing and training.

 

June 14: The state Senate passes the bill on a 25-8 vote.

 

June 21: The bill passes the Assembly on a vote of 68-27.

 

July 8: Gov. Walker signs the measure into law.

 

Nov. 1: The new law takes effect.