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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Along with many pro-gun bills, Wisconsin GOP backs one seeking tougher penalties
Darling said she acted after talking with law enforcement officials in Milwaukee, where 23 people were shot, seven fatally, during a single week in early August.
Darling said she acted after talking with law enforcement officials in Milwaukee, where 23 people were shot, seven fatally, during a single week in early August.
Credit:Wisconsin State Senate

In early August, amid a wave of carnage in Milwaukee, something remarkable occurred: A Republican state lawmaker called for new legislation to address gun violence, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker said the measure, sought by Milwaukee's mayor and chief of police, had his support.

"I'm more than willing to talk with law enforcement here or anywhere else about creating mandatory minimum sentences for people who illegally possess a firearm," Walker said, so long as the rights of others are not curtailed. "I'm all for that."

At issue is a bill now being drafted for state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) to mandate a three-year prison term for illegal firearm possession. Darling said (PDF) she acted after talking with law enforcement officials in Milwaukee, where 23 people were shot, seven fatally, during a single week in early August.

State Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) immediately dissed (PDF) Darling's initiative, saying it would do little to keep criminals from getting guns. Berceau instead touted a Democrat-backed bill (AB 138) requiring background checks for nearly all state firearm sales.

But Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn "couldn't be more pleased with the apparent bipartisan support" for tougher gun-related penalties, says chief of staff Joel Plant. Flynn wants tougher rules for habitual criminals who carry weapons or commit gun crimes. A habitual criminal, by state statute, is anyone with one prior felony or three misdemeanor convictions within the past five years.

Plant says this will mean amending the state's concealed carry law to bar persons who meet this test from obtaining a license to pack heat. Currently, most kinds of misdemeanor convictions cannot be used to deny a concealed carry license.

In fact, even if the change Barrett and Flynn want is adopted, a person with two misdemeanor convictions for carrying a concealed gun without a license could still obtain one on request.

Nik Clark, chairman and president of Wisconsin Carry, Inc., calls imposing mandatory sentences "a complete distraction from the real problem" that he says involves district attorneys and judges letting violent offenders off too easy. And he believes "one more law" wouldn't make any difference.

Corey Graff, executive director of Wisconsin Gun Owners, Inc., now the state's leading pro-gun lobby group in terms of reported expenditures (about $285,000 since January 2011), did not respond to requests for comment.

Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the advocacy group Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, backs tougher penalties for gun-related offenses as part of a larger approach. She also wants expanded background checks, an idea that "has the same level of support in Wisconsin as Aaron Rodgers."

Introduced in April, the background check bill appears dead on arrival, legislatively speaking, along with Dem-backed bills to ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines (AB 222), hollowpoint bullets (AB 221) and concealed weapons in the state Capitol (SB 102).

Meanwhile, gun-lobby-backed bills to allow expanded use of crossbows (AB 194), eliminate restrictions on bow hunting near schools and hospitals (AB 8), and exempt bird hunting preserves from noise nuisance laws (AB 7) have all gotten hearings and are moving forward. And gun groups are fired up about the "Wisconsin Firearm Freedom Act."

This proposed bill (PDF), from state Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), would prohibit state and local law enforcement officials from enforcing federal laws against assault weapons, magazine styles and bullet types, as well as "federal measures relating to the confiscation of firearms."

An aide to Schraa says the lawmaker is now working to address concerns raised by medical groups over another bill provision, to ban physicians from asking patients about firearms ownership.

Graff, in a fundraising appeal, said passing Schraa's bill would not be easy because "too many spineless Republicans in state government are afraid" to stand up for gun owners' rights.

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 Joyce Foundation.

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