Friday, September 21, 2018

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Some optimism seen for gun reform in Wisconsin

Chippewa Valley lawmakers comment on the chances

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The cycle is all too familiar.

First, a horrific mass shooting takes place in a school. Then calls for legislative action to address the problem get louder. In the end, the momentum dies and not much happens.

In the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting in which 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wisconsin and the nation are caught up in the call-for-action phase, with Democrats and Republicans at the state and federal level proposing all sorts of measures intended to limit gun violence in schools.

Spurred in part by the protests and emotional testimony of student survivors of the Florida shooting spree that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz has confessed to, some west-central Wisconsin legislators expressed optimism last week that this time substantive legislation will get passed.

Though the Assembly had planned not to return after finishing its work for the year in February, the odds of legislative action increased last week when GOP Gov. Scott Walker revealed he has been talking with lawmakers about them coming back to take up school safety bills in a special session. 

“The time is right,” said Eau Claire Rep. Dana Wachs, one of 17 Democrats seeking to challenge Walker in the fall election. “We can and must do something.”

The key question is what that something should be. Several area legislators stressed that preventing mass shootings is a complex challenge.

“You have to step back from the emotion and recognize there is no silver bullet, for lack of a better term,” said Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie. 

“I am not sure that mass shootings will entirely stop no matter the actions we take,” Bernier said. “With that said, there are numerous  actions that can be taken to make it much more difficult.”

In response to inquiries from the Leader-Telegram, regional lawmakers weighed in last week on several potential measures being discussed to address the issue. 

Weapons bans

Wachs took an aggressive stance, calling for bans on the sale of high-capacity magazines, “bump stocks” that can make semi-automatic weapons perform like automatics, and military-style assault weapons such as the AR-15, which has been used in several U.S. mass shootings. 

“I’ve been a deer hunter my whole life, and you don’t need an assault weapon to hunt deer,” Wachs said. “When you hunt deer, if you know what you’re doing, you’re only going to use one or two shots. ... You don’t need hundreds of rounds a minute when you go deer hunting.”

Another regional Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, said she supports banning bump stocks but otherwise does not back bans on guns or ammunition.

“I support the Second Amendment just as I support the rest of the U.S. Constitution,” she said.

Bernier, who called herself a gun advocate, supports banning bump stocks as a good start toward reducing the potential loss of life in mass shootings but said she wouldn’t vote for any proposal to ban the sale of AR-15s.

“It’s not what the weapon looks like,” Bernier said. “It’s how many shots can be fired, and a lot of different kinds of guns can be semi-automatic.”

By the same token, Bernier indicated she is “probably OK” with some kind of limit on magazine size, although she said the maximum should be no fewer than 10 rounds to avoid overly limiting law-abiding people attempting to defend people from a mass shooter. She cautioned that limiting magazine sizes would not be a cure-all because it only takes a few seconds for a shooter to replace a clip, but at least that might give potential victims an opportunity to run, hide or take action against the perpetrator.

Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, pledged to weigh all the evidence on any proposed weapon or ammunition bans but suggested such steps likely would be more effective if pursued at the federal level.

Background checks

Requiring background checks for all gun purchases, including sales from private sellers and at gun shows that are now exempted, is a potential area of bipartisan agreement. Wachs and Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, said they are strong advocates for that step and Bernier said she wouldn’t object to such legislation, as long as it remains permissible for a resident to give a gun to a relative without breaking the law.

“I have no problem with universal background checks, but that isn’t going to solve the problem,” Bernier said. “So few guns that actually murder people are bought at a gun show.”

Schachtner was unequivocal, saying, “Like the vast majority of Americans, I support universal background checks so we know firearms are not going into the wrong hands.” She encouraged the Republicans controlling both houses of the Legislature to move the measure forward.

Summerfield said he is open to the concept of universal background checks but is still researching “whether tightening these loopholes is the right way to do it.”

“I want to make sure we are making smart decisions and not having knee-jerk reactions,” Summerfield said.

Vinehout called for tightening background check laws to remove barriers states face when submitting needed information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. 

Wachs also said he wants to see the Legislature reverse what he called its “terrible mistake” in the last session of eliminating a 48-hour waiting period for buying guns, a law that he said saved countless lives by preventing people from buying firearms and using them — on themselves or others — in the heat of passion.

Mental health

Several legislators mentioned mental health as an area that must be addressed to further limit the possibility of more mass shootings.

“When people are happy and healthy, they don’t shoot other people,” Vinehout said. “We have issues of poverty, mental illness, drugs and alcohol addiction, hatred, racism and bullying, which escalates the level of anger in our communities.”

She called for investing in mental health services and developing a community-based mental health system across Wisconsin. She argued that cuts in school funding hurt the resources needed by school counselors to assist troubled students, and cuts in funding to counties harmed community resources.

Wachs said Walker’s rejection of federal Medicaid expansion money has limited access to mental health services in Wisconsin. 

Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, also advocated for more mental health funding, saying, “It is my strong belief that we should continue to put resources toward services which address the root causes of violence and socially destructive behaviors.”

Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, said mental health must be a key part of the safety debate.

“In light of the terrible tragedy in Parkland, Fla., there has been a renewed focus on gun control efforts,” Moulton said. “While this is an important conversation to have, it also overlooks some of the critical factors in this horrible incident, specifically the mental health of the shooter and the failure of local law enforcement to act on the large number of warning signs before it was too late.”

Moulton said more consideration should be given to gun violence restraining orders in which family members or people close to a gun owner would be able to get a court order for law enforcement to temporarily seize the guns of a person deemed a danger to himself or others. Such a law would have had a better chance of stopping the Florida shooting than any ban on weapons or ammo, he said.

Bernier advocated for a law that would allow law enforcement officials to enter a “hold” into the background check system if they have credible information that a person has exhibited threatening behavior or mental illness.

“I guess we may have to inconvenience people in order to avoid more mass shootings,” she said. “I’d rather be wrong and have somebody have to prove why they can own a gun rather than be wrong and have somebody commit a mass shooting.” 

Society’s efforts to be more humane to people with mental illness has led to more potentially dangerous individuals being allowed to roam the streets, Bernier said, adding, “It’s a problem waiting to happen.”

Arming teachers

Of the legislators who responded to a Leader-Telegram inquiry, only Bernier expressed support for arming teachers. Attorney General Brad Schimel recently said he would be OK with the state Department of Justice offering training to teachers on how to use firearms, and Republican U.S. Senate candidates Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson both have said arming teachers should be part of school safety plans if schools want to try it.

“Any staff willing to train and conceal carry should be allowed to protect their own lives and the lives of their students. Students and staff are sitting ducks,” said Bernier, who also advocated for removing signs that indicate schools are weapon-free zones because she believes such signs simply assure a shooter that no one will fire back.

Moulton indicated any decision to arm teachers should be made by local school districts and not by state mandate.

The three area Democrats said they are strongly opposed to arming teachers, with Vinehout saying no teachers she has talked to want to act as law enforcement officers or keep loaded firearms in their classrooms.

“As a parent and grandparent,” Schachtner said, “I have serious reservations about arming teachers who have significant responsibilities as is. As a school board member, however, I think we need to empower local communities to make those decisions for their own kids and educators. That’s why I supported a proposal to give schools a revenue limit exemption if they choose to create and implement school safety measures.” 

Petryk and Summerfield both noted that they recently joined the majority in the Assembly in voting to create a grant program to help schools pay for armed guards and to make “straw purchases” — buying a gun for someone prohibited from possessing one — a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Those are two steps in the right direction, Summerfield said.

Regarding all the other proposals, Wachs said it shouldn’t require a special session to pass them because many of the bills have been floating around the Capitol for years.

“We’ve got to make these changes to protect our children. We should have done this years ago,” Wachs said. “The citizens of this state and regular folks have had enough. We need to do the right thing.”

Republican Reps. Treig Pronschinske of Mondovi, Romain Quinn of Barron, Rob Stafsholt of New Richmond and Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls did not respond to an email seeking their views on school safety issues. 

Contact: 715-833-9209,, @ealscoop on Twitter


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