WASHINGTON — When Congress passed landmark gun violence prevention legislation known as the Brady Bill back in 1993, two Wisconsin Republicans were among the 54 GOP lawmakers who voted to send the bill to President Clinton’s desk. One Wisconsin Democrat, then-Rep. Dave Obey, voted against it.
Gun control politics have shifted dramatically in Wisconsin and across the country over the past 26 years. Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly willing to support tougher federal gun control laws, the New York Times reported this week. And congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked congressional efforts to restrict access to firearms after recent mass shootings.
In February of this year, when the U.S. House approved an even tougher background check bill for firearm sales, none of Wisconsin’s five Republican lawmakers supported it. The bill passed largely along partisan lines (with the support of all three Wisconsin House Democrats).
Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the two state Republicans who voted for the Brady Bill, opposed the effort to expand background checks this year. (Then-GOP Rep. Scott Klug was the second Wisconsin Republican who voted for the Brady Bill in 1993).
Wisconsin lawmakers will likely vote again soon on more high-profile gun bills. House and Senate leaders have vowed to address gun violence following the back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton earlier this month.
In the wake of those recent shootings (where 31 people were killed and another 53 were injured), gun control advocates demanded that the Senate return immediately to vote on the House-passed background check bill, H.R. 8. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to do so, instead saying that senators would address the issue after members of Congress are slated to reconvene on Sept. 9.
Some House lawmakers, however, are returning to Washington early to vote on even more gun control bills. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced his panel will meet on Sept. 4 to vote on several more bills aimed at restricting access to firearms.
The committee plans to vote on bills that would ban high capacity ammunition magazines, create incentives for states to create “red flag” laws that allow family members to petition courts to seize firearms from people deemed threats to themselves or others and prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing firearms.
Sensenbrenner, the No. 2 Republican on the Judiciary Committee, will be at the center of the fight next week as that panel takes up another round of gun control bills. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about which, if any, bills he might support.
It’s unclear whether lawmakers will enact significant legislation. Even as some congressional Republicans say they’re eager to pass legislation to curb gun violence, many appear reluctant to engage on the issue.
“I think the big question will be where the momentum is when we come back,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), told the Examiner this week.
If congressional Republicans aren’t willing to back the background check bill that already passed the House, “it’s probably unlikely they’re going to back a lot of other things.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey has said he’s working with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to revive a version of their background check legislation that failed in the Senate twice — once in 2013 and again in 2015. President Trump suggested a willingness to support stricter background checks after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, but he appeared to reverse course after meeting with the head of the National Rifle Association, multiple news outlets reported.
Trump and some other congressional Republicans have indicated a willingness to pass a federal law that would create grants to help states set up “red flag” laws, which would allow family members to petition a judge to temporarily keep guns out of the hands of someone deemed dangerous. Many Democrats suggest that’s not enough.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Politico this month that background check legislation and a federal red flag bill are both unlikely to pass. “I really don’t see the dynamic having really changed there much,” Johnson said of background check legislation that failed in the past. “I don’t anticipate we’re going to pass a federal red flag law.” He told Politico he was open to legislation to establish a red flag grant program, but said the Senate would need to “attach to those grants very strict guidelines in terms of due process.”
Johnson voted against the Manchin-Toomey effort in 2013 and missed the vote in 2015, which his spokeswoman said was accidental, the Madison Capital Times reported.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was among those asking McConnell to hold an immediate vote on the House-passed background checks bill.
“The people of Wisconsin overwhelmingly support universal background checks and I have cosponsored legislation in the Senate to prevent the easy access of dangerous weapons for those that shouldn’t have them,” Baldwin said in a statement.
The House-passed bill, H.R. 8, would require federal background checks on all gun purchases, including private transactions. The law currently only requires background checks on sales from federally licensed gun dealers. About one in five U.S. gun sales are conducted without a background check, according to the advocacy group Brady United.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay), who voted against H.R. 8, told Fox 11 News in an interview Saturday that he agreed Congress should cancel its August recess to focus on gun control. “I think it’s a debate we should have,” he said. “These are terrible, terrible tragedies.”
He noted that he may not agree with Democrats on policy specifics, and stressed the importance of strengthening the existing background check process.
‘Willing to get our foot in the door’
A majority of the public supports more gun controls. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted last month showed that 89% of Americans wanted Congress to expand background checks to all firearm sales and 76% back “red flag” laws.
Jeri Bonavia, executive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, said there’s a disconnect between legislators who oppose gun control efforts and the people in the state.
“You see them aligning themselves with special interest groups rather than the majority of people,” she said.
Bonavia said a GOP shift on the issue in recent decades has come as the NRA has also become more polarized in its views. “We saw that particularly Republicans went with them on that journey to the extremist edge and they haven’t come back.”
As for whether she expects Congress to pass meaningful legislation, Bonavia said, “As a human being, I’m always hopeful that other human beings will care that other human beings are being gunned down.”
Some congressional Democrats have suggested they aren’t interested in solely backing the more moderate proposals that Senate Republicans have endorsed.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called legislation to create incentives for state red flag laws an “ineffective cop out.” He said Democrats “are not going to settle for half-measures so Republicans can feel better and try to push the issue of gun violence off to the side,” the Hill reported.
But Pocan said “having anything pass is a good start.” He added, “I think we’re willing to get our foot in the door on anything. It’s important to have protections in place.”