Republicans say no way to Evers’ special session on gun control

Does Wisconsin law allow that? How the standoff might play out

Gov. Tony Evers announces his call for a special session gun safety at City Hall in Milwaukee on Oct. 21, 2019 surrounded by supporters
Gov. Tony Evers announces his call for a special session gun safety at City Hall in Milwaukee on Oct. 21, 2019 (Courtesy of Wisconsin Eye)

The idea of a special session on gun safety measures appeared to be at a standstill at the end of the day on Monday. 

Gov. Tony Evers toured locations across the state, and will continue his tour on Tuesday, to talk about his executive order calling for a special session on two very specific items tied to gun safety. 

When the governor calls a special session, the legislature must convene, and any bills it takes up must be considered germane to the topic the governor chooses. In this case, Evers laid out a very narrow scope by listing just two specific bills, both of which have strong support among Wisconsinites, including the majority of gun owners and Republican voters. 

  • Evers’ order on Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) states: “LRB-4383 and 4700, legislation creating extreme risk protection temporary restraining orders and injunctions preventing individuals who are substantially likely to injure themselves or others from possessing firearms and providing a penalty for violating such extreme risk protection temporary restraining orders and injunctions.”
  • Evers’ order on universal background checks for gun purchases states: “Requiring background checks for all gun sales: LRB-4698 and 4701, legislation creating a universal background check requirement for the sale or transfer of firearms and providing a penalty for the sale or transfer of firearms without conducting a background check.”

Only those two items — not any of the additional wording or “whereas clauses” he put into Executive Order #54 — define the scope of the special session.

“After calling for these important pieces of legislation and giving the Republicans the opportunity to hear the people of our state and do the right thing, and providing ample opportunity for time for them to do so, unfortunately the Republicans did not act,” said Evers at a news conference at the Milwaukee City Hall on Monday morning. “So today, as promised, I am calling on the legislature to meet for a special session on gun-safety reform.”

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), responded to Evers’ order by saying Republicans “will not entertain proposals that infringe on our constitutional rights.” He added that the governor’s call for the legislature to take action on expanded background checks and red-flag laws was proof that “Governor Evers stands ready to confiscate guns in our state.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) replied similarly to the executive order asserting that “liberals” were “upping their rhetoric in support of taking guns away from law-abiding citizens.” He added, “The Senate will not be part of a drawn-out strategy to infringe on constitutional rights.” 

What could happen on Nov. 7

Wisconsin’s Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), published a detailed document on the law and precedent and history of special sessions, that was updated just last month. A special session is called by the governor and designed to convene the legislature outside the scope of its regular session to address a specific, urgent problem or issue that the governor considers so important that it must be addressed promptly and separately.

However, according to the LRB documents and staff, the courts have given the legislature fairly wide latitude in interpreting what actions can be taken that could be considered relevant to that special-session call.

There is no guarantee of any actions the legislature might take up that the leaders will say is germane to the two bills Evers cited.

As the LRB document states, “…the legislature is under no obligation to act on any of the proposed bills identified by the governor in the special session call. Instead the legislature may consider any legislation that is germane to the special session call.” 

The legislature must convene on the date it was called into special session. Although timing is often less precise in how it is applied, Evers’ call stated 2 pm on Nov. 7.

Another tactic Republicans, who control the Senate and Assembly, could utilize might be to convene in what is called a skeletal session, gaveling in with just a few legislators present and adjourning until a future date. If they choose to do that, there might be no action at all on the above bills or any others on Nov. 7.

The legislature has also adjourned special session in skeletal session, although the LRB staff were not aware of any past special session that was convened and then ended for good in skeletal session on the same day. 

Wisconsin gun history

Hunting in Wisconsin is part of state heritage. At the same time, 80% of Wisconsinites favor universal background checks and 81% favor ERPO/red-flag laws.

It’s a state where hunting, 2nd Amendment rights and gun-safety measures coexist. 

The National Rifle Association has been active in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC), which tracks donations, has analyzed NRA donations to state elected officials. 

The WDC records show Sen. Luther Olson received the highest amount of outside electioneering and direct support combined at $12,272, followed by Sen. Tom Tiffany, who is now running to replace Rep. Sean Duffy in Congress, and received $7,937.

The NRA has spent nearly $5.5 million during the past 20 years on outside electioneering activities to support GOP and conservative legislative and statewide candidates,” reports the WDC website. “Most of that, more than $4.4 million, was spent to support former GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2018 campaigns for governor.” It also notes that Evers has not received any contributions or election support from the NRA.  

WDC Executive Director Matt Rothschild says NRA support and the reactions to the special session from Republican leaders are no coincidence.

“Vos, Fitzgerald and the whole Republican caucus are in hock to the NRA, lock, stock and barrel,” Rothschild said.

Special session history

A “special session” of the Wisconsin Legislature differs from a regular legislative session in its purposes and procedures. Since Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the legislature has met in special session 97 times. The most recent was the March 2018 Special Session, called by Governor Scott Walker to consider legislation relating to school security and safety

Since Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the LRB reports that the legislature has met in special session 97 times. The most recent was the March 2018 special session, called by Gov. Scott Walker to consider legislation relating to school security and safety.

Several times legislative leaders, including Democratic speakers, have pushed back against past governors. According to the LRB publication

“On November 18, 1987, Speaker Loftus wrote to Governor Thompson the following: [W]hile the governor may recommend for the Legislature’s consideration such matters as he may deem expedient, the means by which and the extent to which the Legislature accomplishes the special purposes for which it was convened are policy decisions for the Legislature. . .”

“Calling a special session, a Governor can only limit the purpose for which the special session is called. The means by which and the extent to which the general purposes of the call are to be implemented are policy decisions for the Legislature…This same point was made earlier, during the March 1922 Special Session, when Attorney General William J. Morgan opined that, although a call for a special session of the legislature may specify in minute detail the laws which the governor wishes enacted, the legislature has the constitutional authority to enact any law designed to accomplish objects of legislation suggested in the call.”

This could leave the door open to Republicans bringing forward bills that came out of the Speaker’s task force on Suicide Prevention or other mental-health bills or school safety bills that Republican have often cited as another approach to gun safety. 

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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