October 30, 2011

A long wait yields expansive new freedoms

Wisconsin’s concealed carry bill has few restrictions

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

About this story

This report was produced in collaboration with the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, which plans to publish a report on concealed carry laws this fall.

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 January 2004, when the Senate voted 23-10 to override then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s veto of a concealed carry bill, Jauch unloaded with both barrels. “The special interests won today,” he said from the Senate floor. “The NRA won today.”

That victory was short-lived, however; the state Assembly fell one vote short of overriding Doyle’s veto.

Two years later another concealed carry bill passed, and the governor’s veto was narrowly sustained. Again Jauch argued against it.

This year, following the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP majorities in both houses, concealed carry was back. On June 9, Jauch voted against the bill in committee, saying he didn’t think it would make Wisconsin safer.

But there was no stopping concealed carry this time around. It easily passed both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Walker. In the Senate, the vote was 25 to 8, with all 19 Republicans and six Democrats voting in favor.

Among them was Bob Jauch.

State Sen. Bob Jauch was against concealed carry before he was for it.

Jauch had co-sponsored amendments to add the state Capitol, domestic violence shelters, child care centers, polling places, churches and bars to the list of places from which concealed weapons would be automatically prohibited. All were defeated, meaning these places will have to post signs to keep weapons out. But he voted 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 takes effect Tuesday, 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 bill offers more expansive rights than earlier versions: “I might say it was worth the wait, because we got a better law than the one that was vetoed by Governor 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 bill is stronger. 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.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman believes concealed carry license holders “are far more responsible than the population as a whole.”

“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 will set their own policies as to where weapons will be permitted.

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.

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

As of Tuesday, all Wisconsin residents can have loaded and unencased handguns in their vehicles. 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.”

Oregon Police Chief Doug Pettit is worried that licenses may go to people who are “not familiar with the weapon and are not trained properly.” Courtesy of Doug Pettit

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 — on both sides — about the level of training needed to obtain a license. An initial bill included no provisions for licensing and training. These were added later, after objections were raised.

The law as passed says 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 drafted, and Walker grudgingly approved, an administrative rule to require at least four hours of training, including some hands-on. The rule has drawn howls of protest from the NRA, which insists Wisconsin’s law was passed “with a presumption of freedom, rather than excessive regulation.”

Even before this four-hour training rule was suggested, NRA lobbyist Darren LaSorte was quoted saying that eliminating Wisconsin’s licensing and training requirements “will certainly be an aspiration of ours down the line.”

Adds NRA spokeswoman Parsons, “We will continue to work with members of the Legislature to strengthen the language,” so more people can carry.

SIDEBAR

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. The effective date is Nov. 1.

‘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.

After the 2004 vote, NRA lobbyist LaSorte was quoted as saying “some seats are going to have to change,” adding that Sherman is “certainly going to be in the sights of his constituents.”

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.”

Direct contributions to state candidates from the NRA Political Victory Fund have been nominal, totalling just $15,000 since mid-2008, state records show. But Parsons says the group’s clout springs from other sources: “The reason we are so powerful is that our members vote and they contact their legislators.”

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 the bill, compared to 205 hours reported by groups opposed to it. The group that logged the most hours against it, 66, was Milwaukee County.

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 are taking 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.” Giroux says every campus in the system will post signs against weapons in buildings, at a total of at least 12,000 doors.

The Wisconsin Parks & Recreation Association, representing local parks officials, also opposes the change. Executive director Steve Thompson cites special concern over allowing weapons in areas used for concerts, youth-related programs and athletic events: “The potential is there for something to go awry.”

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.

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.

“Open carry is just not as practical in the winter and concealed carry is not as practical in the summer,” he says. And it may not make sense to carry openly in a “dense crowd.”

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.”

Grothman shrugs off the concerns raised by Chief Pettit: “If I’m a law enforcement officer, the guy I’m going to worry about is the guy who doesn’t have a concealed carry license.”

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.’ ”