Latest Wisconsin shooting does little to move gun safety discourse in Washington

By: - March 5, 2020 7:46 pm

(Alex Wong | Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation gathered on the floor of the U.S. House last week to mourn the victims of last week’s shooting at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee.

But Rep. Gwen Moore — a Democrat who represents the city in Congress and who lost a friend that day — is skeptical that the shared moment of silence and reflection will build support for gun safety measures among her House colleagues from the Badger State. 

The state’s four House Republicans — all strong backers of gun rights — aren’t likely to change their positions in the wake of last week’s shooting, she said in an interview. 

Though they privately express disagreements over some issues with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Donald Trump, in public they are “lockstep” behind them, she said. “I think the president has shown he has a stranglehold in Congress among Republican members … It’s really shameful. They’re so terrified of being primaried or of losing their seat … that apparently they’re willing to surrender their judgment and everything else.”

Spokespeople for Wisconsin’s four Republicans — Reps. Bryan Steil, Jim Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman and Mike Gallagher — did not respond to requests for comment.

All four received high marks in 2018 from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful gun lobby, according to data compiled by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that covers issues related to guns. 

Wisconsin’s four Republican lawmakers have received funds from gun rights groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Contributions during their congressional careers range from $1,255 to Steil (a newcomer to Capitol Hill) to $33,750 to Sensenbrenner (a longtime House member). The amounts reflect contributions from political action committees and individuals giving $200 or more through Feb. 21. 

All four voted against major gun control legislation in the U.S. House this session, including bills that would require background checks on all gun sales and strengthen background check procedures. And none has signed on to the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, a so-called “red flag” law that would help states develop processes that allow family members to keep guns out of the hands of individuals deemed to pose threats to themselves or others. It has not yet come up for a vote on the House floor.

Sensenbrenner, Grothman and Gallagher also voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was reportedly opposed by the NRA because it included a provision that would bar abusive dating partners from buying or owning firearms. 

Steil joined Democrats in support of the bill.

Katherine Phillips, federal affairs manager at Giffords, a gun violence prevention group in Washington, called Steil’s break with the NRA a “great sign” that the gun lobby’s grip on lawmakers is loosening.

Moore is one of two supporters of gun safety legislation in Wisconsin’s House delegation. The other is Mark Pocan, a Democrat from the 2nd District in seven counties in southwestern Wisconsin, including Madison and Beloit. Both backed last year’s efforts to expand and strengthen background checks and to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in the VAWA bill, and both have signed on to the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act in the House.

Both Moore and Pocan received “Fs” from the NRA in 2018, according to data released by The Trace, and got no money from gun rights groups. Pocan has received about $2,000 from gun control groups, while Moore hasn’t received any money from them, according to the data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. 

A mixed record

Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, meanwhile, has a mixed record on the issue, earning a “C” from the NRA in 2018, according to The Trace. In this Congress, he has voted to reauthorize VAWA and for the bill to require background checks on all gun sales, but voted against the one that would strengthen background-check procedures. He has not signed on to the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act. 

Last year, he shepherded a law through Congress that allows states to direct a higher percentage of federal funds to construct and expand public target ranges. 

Kind has received the most money from gun rights groups — more than $45,000 — of his House colleagues in the Badger State, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

That could reflect his long tenure — 12 terms representing the 3rd District — in the House and a history of voting with the gun lobby, said Christian Heyne, vice president for policy at Brady, a gun-control advocacy group. That said, Kind’s recent votes in support of gun safety reflect an evolution on the issue that is taking place among some lawmakers nationwide, Heyne added. 

Kind’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The state’s other House seat has been vacant since former Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican, stepped down last September. A special election to succeed Duffy will be held on May 12.

On the other side of the Capitol, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, supports stricter gun measures, including the Senate version of the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act. Last week, she called on McConnell to hold a vote on the bill that would expand background checks, saying “the Senate must take action now to end gun violence.”

She has received nearly $60,000 from gun control groups during her career.

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, meanwhile, is a strong supporter of gun rights issues, receiving an “A” from the NRA. He voted against bans on semi-automatic firearms and on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. He also voted for legislation that would ensure that people can carry concealed guns across state lines and he opposes universal background checks.

Johnson has received nearly $200,000 during his 10-year Senate career from gun rights groups.

Gun safety legislation appeared to be gaining traction in Washington last summer, when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promised a debate on federal efforts to curb gun violence in the wake of the back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. At the time, Trump lauded legislative prospects for “meaningful background checks” and McConnell seemed to back some action, telling a local radio show that the “urgency of this is not lost on any of us.” 

But soon after, the House began impeachment proceedings, an effort that quashed prospects for bipartisan compromise. 

In spite of last week’s shooting, Moore is skeptical that another window for action will arrive in the 116th Congress, especially as the presidential election gets underway. 

Her best hope: changing party control of the U.S. Senate in this fall’s elections. “We feel like that’s our only shot at sort of doing something around gun violence,” she said.

Phillips of Giffords said gun safety is an increasingly popular voting issue. “This Republican Senate can’t hide from their track record here,” she said. “People are paying attention to this issue.”

Campaign cash from gun rights groups

Here’s how much Wisconsin lawmakers have received over their congressional careers from gun rights groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (the center tracks contributions from political action committees and individuals giving $200 or more, dating back to 1989): 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R): $191,538

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D): $0

Rep. Ron Kind (D): $45,482

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R): $33,750 

Rep. Glenn Grothman (R): $24,805

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R): $10,590

Rep. Bryan Steil (R): $1,255

Rep. Mark Pocan (D): $0

Rep. Gwen Moore (D): $0

Campaign cash from gun control groups

Here’s how much Wisconsin lawmakers have received over their congressional careers from gun control groups: 

Sen. Ron Johnson: $0

Sen. Tammy Baldwin: $59,857

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner: $2,500

Rep. Mark Pocan: $1,960

Rep. Mike Gallagher: $0

Rep. Glenn Grothman: $0

Rep. Ron Kind: $0

Rep. Gwen Moore: $0

Rep. Bryan Steil: $0

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.