A gun show in Chantilly, Va. Wisconsin activists seek to mobilize support for stronger measures to limit the circulation of guns and praise recent vetoes by Gov. Tony Evers of bills that would loosen the state's gun laws. (Alex Wong | Getty Images)
Activists seeking to curb gun violence believe that gun-related bills that Republican lawmakers passed and Gov. Tony Evers vetoed should become important campaign issues next fall — against the GOP lawmakers who passed them and in support of Evers’ re-election.
“We don’t want to get rid of guns — we just want people to use them safely,” said Jennifer Hoffman-Jonas, a leader in the Milwaukee North Shore suburbs for the group Moms Demand Action. The organization seeks stronger regulations on firearms.
On Friday, April 15, State Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) held a news conference outside Whitefish Bay High School to commend Evers for vetoing legislation that would have permitted people who have concealed-carry licenses to possess a weapon in a vehicle on school grounds. Hoffman-Jonas and other advocates for curbing gun violence joined the event.
The legislation, AB-495, would have carved out an exception to the state law enacted in 1991 making it a felony to possess a gun anywhere on school grounds. Its supporters portrayed it as simply ensuring that parents who are lawful gun owners wouldn’t face charges for bringing firearms on school grounds while picking up their children at school.
Evers stated in his veto message that “this bill neither improves public safety nor addresses gun violence in our state.”
Critics of the legislation say it would have moved Wisconsin in the wrong direction by further relaxing restrictions on when and where people can carry guns.
“Bringing them on school grounds does not seem to be a right. We need to keep our schools a safe haven,” Hoffman-Jonas said in an interview Monday.
Andraca holds a concealed-carry license herself. “I don’t carry a gun in my car,” she said in an interview. “I think that we need to be talking about a culture of gun safety. We need to know where our firearm is at all times. And I don’t think we should be prioritizing the convenience of the few over the safety of the many.”
In a 2016 Marquette Law School survey, 63% of people who responded said they opposed allowing guns on school grounds. Other polls have shown that similar majorities support measures such as expanding background checks for gun purchases or to keep guns out of the hands of people who might be vulnerable to suicide.
Many gun owners themselves support regulations that promote gun safety, Andraca said. “We had bills this session that would require guns to be stored safely and away from children,” she said. “We had extreme risk protection orders,” which would allow for a court procedure to remove guns from people who have been shown to be dangerous to themselves or others.”
Bills have been introduced in recent, successive sessions requiring that background checks, already required in commercial gun transactions, be extended to private sales, including at gun shows. “We can’t even get a public hearing” on those proposals, Andraca said. “We can’t have a vote, we can’t have a discussion.”
That is so despite the support of majorities of Wisconsin residents, including gun owners. “If we can’t talk about these bills, if we can’t talk about the gun violence that is plaguing our state, all corners of our state, if we can’t talk about it in the Legislature, we can’t do anything about it,” she added.
While former Republican Gov. Scott Walker took the position that people should need a permit to carry a concealed weapon, Andraca observed, all three Republicans currently seeking the party’s nomination to run for governor want to eliminate that requirement, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week. “That shows how far to the right and how extreme the Republican Party in Wisconsin has become,” she said.
Khary Penebaker has become an outspoken supporter of measures to reduce the flow of guns in society, centering his activism on the death of his mother, who used a gun to take her life when he was a child.
“I wish legislators would focus on the pain I and my fellow gun violence survivors have to endure every single day, versus thinking about the power they have, or trying to appease the gun lobby,” Penebaker said Monday. “Because they’re really trying to craft bills that are in search of a problem, when in reality, we can show you the problem.”
Penebaker, a Democratic activist, said that gerrymandered legislative districts have insulated GOP lawmakers from the opinions of constituents who oppose their measures to loosen gun laws. At the same time, he added, “you might have a Republican or a gun owner, who might say, ‘I want common sense gun reform,’ but doesn’t think about that in terms of who we’re going to actually go vote for.”
To overcome those obstacles, gun violence survivors and other activists “have to keep pushing legislators to listen to their constituents,” Penebaker said. “And all of them, not just the ones that support them and vote for them. And we have to keep pushing voters to look at who these candidates or elected officials are who are trying to pass bad policies.”
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