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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

Concealed Carry and You

Law goes into effect Nov. 1, but questions remain

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On Nov. 1, Wisconsin's gun advocates will achieve their long-held dream of legally obtaining a permit that will allow them to carry concealed weapons in bars, day care centers, churches and even the state Capitol.

But the implementation of Wisconsin's concealed carry law isn't as simple as gun advocates might have hoped.

The bill—passed by the pro-gun state Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker—is being criticized by just about everyone, from all parts of the political spectrum.

So while Nov. 1 will be the earliest that a Wisconsin resident can apply for a concealed carry permit, there are still a lot of questions about how, exactly, the law will be put into effect.

Where Can Weapons Be Carried?

When Republicans passed the concealed carry law earlier this year, they passed one of the loosest permitting systems in the country. Permit-holding adults will be able to carry concealed handguns, stun guns, knives and billy clubs into college dorms, parks, beaches, the zoo, the state Capitol, domestic violence shelters—more or less anywhere that isn't already screened for weapons, unless the property owner posts a sign that bans weapons on his or her property.

But questions remain with just two weeks before the system goes into effect.

Still unsettled at the moment is how the state government will regulate the carrying of weapons in state-owned buildings and properties. The Department of Administration (DOA) will set out a policy for the entire state, but a DOA representative said that the administration's policy on concealed carry is still being developed.

That leaves state properties, such as the Wisconsin State Fair, hanging. State Fair spokeswoman Kristi Chuckel said that the fair's board would be able to create a weapons policy for next summer's event, but that it was waiting for the state DOA to give it direction on how it should handle weapons on the grounds and in facilities for the rest of the year.

Other Milwaukee institutions are taking matters into their own hands before the law is implemented. The Milwaukee Common Council voted to ban concealed weapons on city-owned properties and has urged tavern owners to ban guns in their businesses. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will vote on a policy in the coming weeks. Summerfest will continue its ban on weapons. The Milwaukee Public Library will ban weapons, too.

UW-Milwaukee will ban firearms and dangerous weapons in buildings that are owned, occupied or controlled by UWM, including in residence halls, and in UWM vehicles and at special events. Employees, including student employees, will be prohibited from carrying weapons while they are working for the university, whether on or off campus. Hartford Avenue University elementary school, which is located on campus, will continue to have a 1,000-foot gun-free zone.

By law, weapons will not be banned when they are within motor vehicles in UWM parking facilities and concealed carry permit holders will be able to carry on UWM grounds.

Marquette University will continue its ban on weapons and will begin posting “guns prohibited” signs in its buildings, Marquette spokeswoman Kate Venne told the Shepherd last week. But Marquette cannot ban weapons in the outdoor areas of campus, or in student apartments, buildings leased from the university or in university parking lots or structures.

Other public areas fall through the cracks. Think about the mass protests taking place around the state on city streets and other public areas. Concealed weapons could be part of the mix starting this fall, making crowd control more difficult for law enforcement in a sometimes-heated setting.

Additionally, businesses, employers and landlords will have to develop a weapons policy and post signs if they want to prohibit weapons on their properties.

Who Can Carry?

Once the new law goes into effect, Wisconsin residents over the age of 21 who are legally able to possess a firearm under state or federal law and provide proof of passing a training course can obtain a concealed carry permit.

That means a lot of individuals will be able to legally carry concealed weapons. But that doesn't mean that these folks should have guns on them, even if they do pass the required background check and fall within the parameters of the law.

“The problem is that we know that there are individuals who are able to purchase guns and now will be able to carry them in public who are at much higher risk for criminal activity, and those particular people are not being weeded out by the background check system,” said Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE). “For example, people who have been convicted of multiple violent misdemeanors are not prohibited from purchasing or carrying under this law.”

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said that thousands of career criminals who have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors would qualify for a concealed carry permit—even though they're a menace to public safety—because they are not convicted felons.

“That is, quite frankly, insane,” Flynn said.

Flynn said that almost half of those convicted of homicides in 2011 would have been eligible for concealed weapons permits because they hadn't been convicted of a felony before committing murder. About 75% of convicted robbers could get a permit at the time of their crime, too, Flynn said.

Flynn said that habitual criminals should be barred from carrying weapons.

Still galling to Flynn is the fact that the penalty for illegally carrying a concealed weapon is still remarkably low—a misdemeanor and a small fine—no matter how many times an individual has been arrested for carrying.

Flynn, along with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, had advocated for a concealed carry permitting system in 2009, one that would have increased the penalty for unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon from a misdemeanor to a felony. That would help to deter people from unlawfully carrying concealed weapons and help law enforcement arrest and prosecute those who illegally carried them.

But Flynn and Chisholm's concealed carry package went nowhere in the Democratically controlled state Legislature. Instead, Republicans took up the issue in 2011 and passed the new, lax system without increasing the penalty for illegally carrying a weapon.

In addition to career criminals, those with troubling mental health histories—but who have not been committed because of their mental health status—will also be able to obtain a permit.

“It's not a great system,” Bonavia said of the background checks. “It will miss a lot of individuals not just because the bar is not set very high, but also because there's been a real problem in getting mental health records into that system. Not just here in Wisconsin, but across the country.”

The state will build a database of permit holders, but access will be highly limited to law enforcement personnel, and with tight restrictions. Police officers will be able to check the database to ensure that a permit is valid. But they won't be able to check the database before approaching a suspect or when pulling over a drunken driver to verify whether or not that individual may be in possession of a gun.

“There are no officer safety tactics,” Flynn said. “They don't presumably care how many of us risk our lives facing armed criminals. They want us to assume that even armed criminals are lawfully carrying until we find out otherwise.”

The Training Requirement

Gun advocates, however, are not bothered by the questions surrounding who will be able to carry concealed weapons and where guns will be allowed. Rather, they're upset that state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has instituted a four-hour training requirement in his emergency rules implementing the bill.

Gov. Walker; the bill's primary author, state Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau); the National Rifle Association (NRA); and various Wisconsin gun groups have blasted Van Hollen's requirement.

“It's pretty clear that some of the rules go past legislative intent,” said Nik Clark, head of Wisconsin Carry Inc.

But Steve Means, executive assistant at the Department of Justice (DOJ), said that the attorney general was working within the bill's language that states that permit holders must provide proof that they have passed a “training course.” The instructor must be licensed to teach about firearms and certify that the permit holder has completed the course. The DOJ is not regulating the course's curriculum, although it will not accept courses taught online only.

Means said the DOJ had been in contact with firearms instructors and found that at least four hours of instruction was needed to do adequate training.

“We decided to stay on the low end,” Means said.

Thus far, the four-hour requirement will remain in the emergency rules. But Walker and other gun-lobby-supported legislators have vowed to delete the training requirement in the permanent rules, soon to be developed by Van Hollen.

The MPD's Flynn chalked up the debate over the training requirement to the culture wars over the right to carry a gun. That, he said, trumped any sort of common-sense discussion on how best to regulate and permit concealed weapons.

“In culture-war land, although you have to take a driver's ed class in order to drive a car, the notion that you should take a firearms ed course to carry a weapon somehow is not analogous,” Flynn said. “You know, 'I have a constitutional right to be untrained and ignorant in the operation of firearms that I carry on the street.'”