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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Will Concealed Weapons Make Wisconsin Safer?

Two fast-tracked bills to get hearings this week

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Republicans are fast-tracking two bills that would allow residents to carry concealed weapons in public.

Only one bill has been introduced in both the state Assembly and the state Senate, legislation that would create a permitting system for those who want to carry a concealed gun in public. Under the bill, introduced by state Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau) and state Rep. Jeff Mursau (R-Crivitz), the state Department of Justice could issue concealed carry licenses to those 21 and older who pass a background check. Applicants would not be required to undergo training for concealed carry, nor would the penalty for carrying a concealed weapon without a license be increased. Concealed weapons could be carried pretty much everywhere except for government buildings, schools and private properties that post signs prohibiting weapons on the premises.

A second, more radical bill, dubbed the "constitutional carry" bill, has been introduced in the state Senate but not in the Assembly. This proposal, introduced by Galloway, would allow anyone who is legally able to possess a handgun the ability to carry it concealed—no permit, no background check, no fingerprinting, no database, no firearms training, nothing. Co-sponsors include Milwaukee-area Sens. Mary Lazich, Glenn Grothman and Leah Vukmir.

The tea party/libertarian wing of the Republican Party has been pushing for the constitutional carry bill, which they say reduces government interference in the right to bear arms. But more established Republican lawmakers—notably, Assembly leaders who decide which bills are introduced—have thus far resisted the call to debate the bill in both houses of the state Legislature.

State politics aside, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm called the two bills "bad and worse" and argued that each of them would make the work of law enforcement much more difficult.

The Reform Package That Went Nowhere

Last year, Chisholm and Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn had advocated for a compromise gun reform package that balanced the right to bear arms with the needs of law enforcement to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and protect public safety. The package created a tightly regulated concealed carry permitting system. But it also increased the penalty for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit from a misdemeanor to a felony, which Chisholm said was essential to keeping guns out of the wrong hands. The package also closed the gun show loophole, which allows private gun sellers to sell a firearm without conducting a background check.

But Chisholm's legislation went nowhere. Democrats, then in charge of both the Legislature and the governorship, had been able to fight back previous attempts to pass concealed carry legislation, and they weren't about to pass concealed carry while they were in charge.

So instead of debating and enacting concealed carry legislation that would help law enforcement, we've now got the "bad and worse" Republican bills that Chisholm, a Democrat, says would hinder the work of police and prosecutors.

"In my view, the ball now shifts," Chisholm said. "The arguments have been made. I've tried to make rational arguments about how we can preserve people's right to possess firearms and address legitimate issues of firearms violence in urban areas like Milwaukee. And it appears to me that all of those arguments are being rejected. The choice is to go forward with bills that increase the ability to go armed in public but have no legitimate consequences for people that misuse that right in any reasonable way."



'More Big Government'

Sen. Galloway did not respond to the Shepherd's requests for comments on the bills, which will be given public hearings in Madison and in Wausau on Thursday, the same day that the National Rifle Association will be holding a constitutional carry informational meeting in Wausau.

Nik Clark, head of Wisconsin Carry Inc., said his organization backs the constitutional carry bill because it imposes fewer limitations on who can defend themselves with a firearm in a life-or-death situation.

"The only time you're ever allowed to take your gun out of your holster is when you're in fear for your life," Clark said. "Why would you want to tell someone that you can't use your gun because you don't have mandatory training, you don't have a permit. Your life is in danger, and as a law-abiding citizen you have a right to defend that life." 

Although the permit bill does not require gun training, Clark argued that such classes are ineffective and too expensive for low-income gun owners who live in crime-ridden areas.

"The country has realized that these permit taxes and permit fees don't make any difference," Clark said. "It's just another tax. It's just more big government. It doesn't make anybody any safer. So why do we have it? In fact, it makes people less safe because it suppresses the right to carry."

Besides, Clark said, felons are already forbidden from possessing handguns. If they are caught carrying concealed weapons, they're "going right back to jail," he said.

Real-World Implications

Contrary to Clark's belief that more concealed weapons would promote public safety, District Attorney Chisholm argued that the concealed carry bills would actually harm police officers' ability to arrest felons for illegal gun possession. Chisholm said that officers have to respect the Second Amendment right to bear arms while also honoring the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Chisholm said the bills tip the scales in favor of gun possession while raising the bar for officers who, based on their experience and training, suspect that a drug dealer or convicted felon is carrying a concealed weapon.

Under the current ban on carrying concealed weapons, if a police officer reasonably believes a person is carrying a concealed gun, the officer can detain that person and investigate him or her based on that assumption.

If, however, concealed weapons were made legal without a permitting system, law enforcement would have to reasonably suspect that an individual carrying a concealed gun was a felon or otherwise barred from possessing a concealed weapon in order to detain that person. Officers who see suspicious activity can't always access a suspect's criminal record in a timely manner. As a result, fewer individuals—including dangerous drug dealers or gang members—would be stopped or searched for gun possession, Chisholm said.

"I think it's our obligation as lawmakers and public safety professionals to give them [law enforcement] reasonable frameworks to keep people safe and still protect people's constitutional rights," Chisholm said. "It's always a balancing act. Now the balance is shifting way too far in the direction of making it difficult for us to do our jobs."