By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The time has finally come to let Wisconsin citizens to carry concealed weapons, gun advocates told state lawmakers Thursday.
Wisconsin and Illinois are the only states that prohibit concealed weapons. Republican legislators have been trying for a more than a decade to lift the restrictions, but former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle twice vetoed bills that would have permitted the practice.
Now, though, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, clearing the way for easy passage. GOP lawmakers, backed by the National Rifle Association, are advancing two measures allowing concealed carry. One version requires permits. The other requires nothing.
Dozens of people packed a public hearing on the permit bill before the Assembly’s criminal justice committee. Gun advocates crowded the room and waited in the hallways, sporting orange buttons that read “Guns Save Lives.” One wore a shirt emblazoned with the message “What Part of Infringed Don’t You Understand?” Another’s shirt featured the mantra “Celebrate Diversity” and multiple images of different handguns.
“Really consider this bill,” Matt Slavik, a 58-year-old information technology specialist from Brookfield, told the committee. “Don’t waste any more time. I’ve been waiting 10 years for this.”
Opponents, though, warned lawmakers allowing concealed carry would lead to more bloodshed. Many demanded lawmakers at least mandate permit holders get basic firearms training in the bills.
“I’m concerned about the health and safety of myself, my friends and family and my fellow citizens,” said Aria Duax, assistant program director for the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort. “Bad judgment and a brief period of rage can have deadly consequences.”
Wisconsin and Illinois are the only states that prohibit concealed weapons. Republican legislators have been working for a decade to lift the restrictions, but former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle twice vetoed bills that would have permitted it.
Under current state law, almost anyone caught carrying a concealed weapon faces up to $10,000 in fines and nine months in jail. Current and retired police officers are allowed to carry, however. Courts also have ruled that business owners and homeowners can carry in some instances as well.
Under the permit bill, people 21 and over could request a five-year license from the state Justice Department. Applicants would have to pay a $13 background check fee and a $52 application fee. No training would be needed to obtain the permit.
Concealed weapons would be allowed nearly everywhere except in police stations, jails, courthouses, beyond airport security checkpoints and on school grounds. Homeowners, businesses and governments could prohibit weapons on their property, too. That’s a major departure from current state law, which generally prohibits firearms in any public building, tavern, state park and within 1,000 feet of school grounds.
Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Assembly, began the hearing by telling the committee people should be allowed to defend themselves. Former Rep. Scott Gunderson, a Waterford Republican who worked for years to get concealed carry legislation passed, backed him up, saying Wisconsin citizens can be trusted to carry hidden weapons responsibly.
“The truth is concealed carry laws have worked in every state that has adopted them,” Gunderson said. “It is time.”
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke told the panel he initially opposed concealed carry, but has come to support it after realizing criminals are overpowering people in the streets. He told the lawmakers they should stiffen penalties for illegal gun possession in the bill, but he’s willing to consider anything that would help crime victims.
Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney questioned why the Legislature is making concealed carry a priority given all the other problems the state faces. He said the bill is a recipe for tragedy without training requirements. He also called for a database of permit holders that police could use to see if someone they’ve stopped might have a concealed weapon.
Duax cited statistics from the Violence Policy Center that showed 300 people have been killed by someone carrying a concealed weapon nationwide since May 2007, including 11 police officers. Several groups, including the Wisconsin Hospital Association and the Wisconsin Domestic Violence Associations, asked lawmakers to carve out hard exemptions to concealed carry for hospitals and shelters.
“In times of emotional stress, even the most docile human being may act irrationally,” Marc Herstand, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ Wisconsin chapter, told the lawmakers.
Gun advocates balked at mandated training, saying poor people can’t afford it and those who can will seek it out on their own. And they scoffed at the notion they will pull out their guns and start blasting away.
“We don’t confront people,” Slavik said. “When I see trouble, the first thing I do is reach for my holster and pull out my cell phone and call 911.”
The Senate judiciary committee held its own public hearing on the bill that doesn’t require any permits in Wausau on Thursday. The Wausau Daily Herald reported about 75 people attended the hearing at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Most of the speakers said they preferred the no-permit measure, the newspaper reported.
Neither committee was expected to vote on the bills.