It’s Time For a Well-Regulated Wisconsin: The State Legislature Should Act Now on Two New Gun Violence Prevention Bills 

The two bills Democrats are proposing — universal background checks and a “red-flag” law — are supported by 80 percent of Wisconsinites.

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Rep. Melissa Sargent of Madison has taken the lead on new gun regulation bills in the state legislature, and is asking Wisconsinites to contact their elected leaders and let them know where they stand on these bills. Photo via Facebook.

In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, many will say that it’s not the time to discuss politics or policy, that it’s not right to politicize a tragedy, that the gun debate can wait. 

And while those arguments are largely deflections from the pro-gun crowd that’s in favor of inaction, perhaps we should have a discussion about gun violence and mass shootings before another tragedy takes place. Or maybe, in America in 2019, it’s just not possible to have this debate when mass shootings aren’t happening.

After mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, shook the nation in early August, talk of policy that would go toward combating these types of deadly massacres, as well as work to minimize other forms of gun violence, was unavoidable. But what’s happened since has followed a familiar script: Outrage and outcry from those siding with an overwhelming majority of Americans who favor things like background checks or “red-flag” laws, some on the left expressing support more far-reaching (but still popular) laws like mandatory gun buyback, and Republicans offering little more than thoughts and prayers, ultimately stalling debate on everything and running out the clock until the national focus moves on to the next story and nothing gets done. 

It’s happened so many times after so many mass shootings that it’s no longer surprising to see the same story play out over and over and over again. It’s disheartening, to be sure, but there are signs of progress, even here in Wisconsin.

Since the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings (which also followed the July 28 mass shooting in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where five people were killed in a quadruple murder/suicide), Democrats in Wisconsin have introduced two new gun regulation bills. One deals with expanding background checks and closing loopholes, the other a an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) — or, “red-flag” law — that would allow family members or members of law enforcement to intervene if they find that a person is a threat to themselves or others.  

The most recent Marquette University Law School Poll, conducted in a brief amount of time between mass shootings, found that 80 percent of Wisconsinites -- including 75 percent of Wisconsin gun owners -- support background checks. “Red-flag” laws are supported by 81 percent of Wisconsinites, and 81 percent of Wisconsin gun owners. It’s hard to find issues in this deeply polarized state that have such a consensus opinion. Do the Packers or Brewers even have 80 percent support in Wisconsin?

The background check bill has now been out for more than two months, and the “red-flag” bill was introduced in mid-September, but despite the overwhelming support for these laws, neither have seen the light of day in the state legislature with Republicans in control. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau are in charge, so these bills haven’t even seen a public hearing. 

Instead of discussing the bills in a legislative committee, or even responding to the actual reality of the legislation being proposed, Republicans latched onto a stray remark by Gov. Evers — a response to an in-the-news question about presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s mandatory buyback proposal, which the governor largely, but not entirely, dismissed — and proceeded to lie to their constituents about gun confiscation, talk about a secret (and nonexistent) “true agenda,” and tweet weird, defensive, gun-happy tweets.

Robyn Vining, first-term Democratic representative from Wauwatosa and a supporter of the legislation, said talk of mandatory buybacks at the press conference introducing the “red-flag” bill was “meant to distract.”

“If my colleagues from across the aisle are willing to look the 81 percent of Wisconsinites in the face who want this law passed and jump onto a distraction from a question that was kind of a comment at the end of a press conference and disregard the 34 minutes prior that made a really good case for that ERPO, then that’s very disappointing,” she said. “Because you're ignoring the will of the people, and you're disregarding the press conference and all of the people who spoke at it, including law enforcement and pediatricians. That is very disappointing.”

If only they’d responded to the actual substance of the bills that are being put forward in reality, we might be getting somewhere, but they instead chose the path of inaction, avoiding the reality of the proposals entirely, choosing bad-faith arguments over honest conversation. These bills have nothing to do with semi-automatic weapons, and nothing to do with any kind of mandatory buyback. 

“We don’t want to be taking guns away,” said Rep. Melissa Sargent (D - Madison), the lead author on both bills. “We want to be ensuring that people still have access to firearms and be protecting that access, but at the same time, making sure that we are addressing real concerns in our society. The people of Wisconsin are our bosses, and they’re asking us to do something about this.”


Sargent said these bills “thread the needle,” protecting 2nd Amendment rights and respecting Wisconsin’s heritage while addressing the “public health crisis” of gun violence.

Sargent said she’s been talking to medical professionals and members of law enforcement as the process of crafting these bills has unfolded, and she’s heard how this public health crisis manifests in a number of ways, one of which is with domestic violence.

“When I talk to law enforcement officers in my community as well as officers around the state of Wisconsin, too many of their calls involve domestic violence, and too many of those calls involve firearms,” she said. 

Another way gun violence is showing up as part of a public health crisis is in rising rates of suicide.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state’s suicide rate went up a staggering 40 percent between 2000 and 2017. More than 70 percent of all deaths by firearm from 2013 to 2017 were suicide deaths. Additionally, Everytown Research shows that while 5 percent of all suicide attempts result in death, 85 percent of gun suicide attempts end in death. 

“I was a member of the Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention this year, and our numbers or increasing, unfortunately,” said Sargent. “Our middle-aged white male, blue collar (workers), farmers, and hard-working folks are disproportionately impacted by suicide by gun. And this legislation would allow loved ones and family members to be able to stand up and protect the people they care about the very most and make sure they’re able to continue living their life together.”

These bills also hope to help protect people from school shootings, mass shootings, and urban violence. 

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“I’ve heard loud and clear the voices of the people of Wisconsin saying that continued inaction is unacceptable,” said Sargent. “People are reaching out to my office as the lead author of both of these pieces of legislation, and they’re urban, rural; they're male, female; they’re gun owners, not gun owners; they're worried about their kids; they’re worried about themselves. We need as legislators to be hearing the voices of the people of Wisconsin.”

Added Vining, “If 81 percent of the people of Wisconsin are asking for these bills to pass, then I think it’s fair that we at least give them debate on the bills. We have to be willing to debate these bills. It’s too bad that we're not letting them go through committee. The people of Wisconsin are asking us to pass the bills and — at minimum — we should absolutely get them to the floor for a debate. These are bills that deserve to be heard.” 

There’s been a lot of talk about Gov. Evers calling a special session to take up these bills, and that could very well happen, although he’d prefer for the legislature to act without him having to call the session, said Sargent. And right now, the obstacles standing in the way of this going through any sort of normal process in the legislature are Vos and Fitzgerald. 

Sargent said she’s been having conversations with Republicans in the Capitol, and while none have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, “there are people who are persuadable.” But with party leadership saying the bills are not priorities, they aren’t in a position to advance them.

“Folks should know that there are two pretty powerful folks in this building who aren’t the governor, Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald, who have an awful lot of power in whether or not those get scheduled to get committee hearings,” she said. “It is vital that people reach out to them as well and let them know how they feel about these policies, why it is they feel that way, and encourage them to at the very least allow public hearings.”

Sargent said it’s time for the community to let their legislators know where they stand.

“The people of the state of Wisconsin need to know that they do have power in influencing policy makers and I encourage them to be reaching out to elected officials and representatives and senators,” she said.

Contact information for Vos and Fitzgerald and links to find your representatives are below.

The words “well regulated” appear right at the beginning of the 2nd Amendment; you can’t miss them. It’s time we remembered that fact, and moved forward with legislation — this legislation, universal background checks and the “red-flag” bill, not some fictional, conspiratorial secret agenda — that has overwhelming majority support from people in Wisconsin, and has been proven to save lives. 

Life-saving policies like these are long overdue, strong proposals are right there ready to be passed, and we shouldn’t have to wait any longer. It’s time for the legislature to take action. 

State Senator Scott Fitzgerald:

Madison Office:
Room 211 South
State Capitol
PO Box 7882
Madison, WI 53707

Telephone: (608) 266-5660


Representative Robin Vos:

Madison Office:
Room 217 West
State Capitol
PO Box 8953
Madison, WI 53708

Telephone: (608) 266-9171


Find your representatives here, and let them know where you stand on the universal background check and “red-flag” bills.

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