In the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call for the state to adopt universal background checks and red-flag laws has largely been ignored by Republicans in control of the Legislature.
Republicans have so far declined to seriously consider new gun-control measures, instead reiterating their support for Second Amendment rights and a need for more deliberation on the topic.
Evers has pressed for measures to curb gun violence after dual massacres this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead. He took to national television over the weekend to call out Republican leaders for their lagging response.
“I’m hopeful that the Republican leaders will see the light,” he said. “They might be waiting for permission from the NRA.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters after a Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce event Tuesday he does not support expanding background checks to private sales, citing concerns over Second Amendment rights and how his Republican constituents would respond.
Even as Democrats and gun-control advocates have pushed for a variety of measures to address gun violence, Fitzgerald said he’s unsure of a path forward on the issue.
“It’s frustrating, I think, because every time one of these incidents happens, we kind of wring our hands and say ‘What can we do, what should we do?’” Fitzgerald said. “And we haven’t been able to come up with that yet.”
Gun-control advocates have pointed to several areas where the state could ratchet up gun regulations.
For example, Wisconsin does not require a waiting period for firearms sales after Republicans scrapped the state’s 48-hour waiting period in 2015.
The state also does not prohibit the possession of assault weapons or large-capacity magazines, such as those used in mass shootings in Las Vegas and Dayton. And Wisconsin doesn’t place limits on the number of firearms that can be purchased at one time, nor does it give local governments authority to regulate firearms.
A Marquette Law School Poll last year found 80% of voters supported expanded background checks.
Fitzgerald said he’s open to expanding a law that prohibits the possession of a firearm for those enjoined under a restraining order or injunction for domestic abuse, child abuse, harassment or elder abuse. In 2014, the state created a process for the surrender of firearms under the law.
Fitzgerald said the law “already qualifies” as a red-flag law.
“If you wanted to include other types of charges, that’s one thing that could be considered,” Fitzgerald said.
Red-flag laws, also known as extreme risk laws, vary in the states where they’re implemented. The laws generally allow families, household members or law enforcement officers to petition a court to temporarily restrict access to guns for a person perceived to be a threat to themselves or others.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia currently have a red-flag law. Some states allow mental health providers, school administrators or coworkers to petition a court to restrict gun access in addition to family and law enforcement.
Fitzgerald said he’s opposed to background checks and is concerned over the possibility of Wisconsinites having to register their guns.
“There is always going to be a constituency who vote Republican and (expanding background checks) means registering your firearm, and they are going to be opposed to it,” he said.
Wisconsin does not require private sellers to conduct a background check when transferring a firearm. Gun dealers must contact the Wisconsin Department of Justice to conduct a background check to sell a handgun, and the FBI to sell a long gun.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, declined to say whether she supports universal background checks or a red-flag law.
She said her top concern is not added gun-control measures, but rather enforcement of existing laws, such as voluntary civil commitment for people perceived to be dangerous.
“We have a lot on the books right now that relates to gun use and responsible gun use, and often these laws are not followed,” Darling said.
Republican lawmakers who unveiled a slate of mental health-related legislation Tuesday declined to talk about gun-related measures despite Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, suggesting mental health may have more to do with mass shootings than gun control.
“That’s not what we’re here to talk about today,” said Rep. Paul Tittl, R-Manitowoc.
Tittl said the four mental health bills, which would provide incentives to attract psychiatrists to the state, among other things, were not proposed in response to gun violence.
His comments came after Vos last week said he wouldn’t entertain Evers’ call for added gun-control measures, but wanted to tackle “the real problem by addressing the mental health issues facing Wisconsin.”
When asked, Tittl declined to discuss any mental health bills that would seek to curb gun violence.
Fitzgerald said he had a three-minute phone conversation with Evers on red-flag laws and a Capitol security study the governor vetoed. Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the conversation happened last week. Fitzgerald said he expressed his willingness to speak further with the governor on the issue, though he was unable to schedule a meeting in person with Evers this week.
Evers and Vos are set to meet Wednesday and might discuss firearms. Evers, Vos and Fitzgerald might also meet next week.
A Vos spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.