Recently this column discussed various efforts to toughen state gun laws, including a bill proposed by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) to impose a mandatory three-year minimum sentence for felony firearms offenses.
Darling announced (PDF) in August 2013 that she was having the bill drafted. But it was never introduced, despite public expressions of support from Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, also both Republican. Milwaukee city officials including Police Chief Edward Flynn have long sought this and other changes in the law.
In May, a 10-year-old girl was gravely wounded on a Milwaukee playground, in a shootout allegedly involving two illegally armed felons. After the shooting, some Democratic lawmakers speculated that interest groups pressured Darling to back down from the bill. Darling and her staff declined to comment.
So the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism filed a request with Darling's office for her records on the bill. The 137 released pages provide some insight into what went on behind the scenes, but fall short of explaining why.
The proposed bill was in fact drafted, and on Aug. 28, 2013, Darling and Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) sent out a memo seeking co-sponsors. The memo said 85 percent of firearms crimes in Milwaukee involve individuals with previous criminal convictions, and noted that similar legislation passed by New York state in 2006 appears to have had a positive effect.
According to Richards' office (Darling is still not talking), 15 other lawmakers asked to be co-sponsors, including four Republican Assembly reps: Joel Kleefisch, Tom Larson, Jeffrey Mursau and Pat Strachota. But in the Senate, no Republican besides Darling signed on.
Vos, through staff, did not respond to a request to explain why he passed on being a co-sponsor after declaring his support for the bill. A records request is pending.
Richards, a candidate for state attorney general, says "we worked on the bill and we were trying to refine it and gain support and we just ran out of time. What would have helped was more outspoken support from my Republican colleagues and more support from the attorney general's office."
The records from Darling's office include articles, talking points and various correspondence. There are supportive communications from city of Milwaukee officials but almost no feedback from the public or outside interest groups, other than an email to a Darling staffer from James Fendry, who runs the advocacy group Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement.
Fendry, responding to a bill draft that Darling's office had shared with him, raised a hypothetical concern about "some older hunter" being locked up for three years because of a long-forgotten bad check conviction he never knew was a felony. He argued that "many felons with guns are very low-level offenders, and are not likely to otherwise reoffend." And he fretted about passing a statewide law to address a problem that exists "in just a few ZIP codes in Milwaukee."
Despite these concerns, Fendry said his group, which was founded more than 30 years ago at the instigation of the National Rifle Association, would not oppose the bill's passage "unless NRA strongly suggests that I do."
Fendry, in an interview, says the NRA "never told me they had any particular position" on the proposed bill, and he never wavered from his lukewarm support.
"I don't really care," is he how he sums it up. "This may -- and I emphasize may -- be something that gun-rights people could have gotten behind on a statewide basis." As he puts it, "If a person violates a gun law, whether we like the gun law or not, we really feel they deserve prosecution, they deserve the penalty."
To review: This bill went belly up, despite being backed by city officials and prominent Republicans and possibly even the gun lobby. Imagine how hard it would be to enact gun law changes that encountered serious opposition.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.
The 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.