By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen formally defended Wisconsin’s new concealed weapons rules Thursday against complaints from the National Rifle Association that the regulations are too draconian, saying the state Justice Department was well within its authority and helped clarify the law.
Van Hollen, a Republican, has spent the last few weeks in a delicate tug-of-war with the NRA, one of the GOP’s staunchest campaign allies, over Wisconsin’s new concealed carry legislation. He has already defended his interpretations of the law to the media, but on Thursday fired off an official letter to the gun organization saying he’s following the law as written.
“We have merely interpreted the statutory language as narrowly as possible to carry out the Legislature’s intent,” Van Hollen wrote.
A message left at the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action early Thursday evening wasn’t immediately returned.
The rifle association has spent years lobbying to make Wisconsin the 49th state to allow concealed weapons. The Republican-controlled Legislature finally passed a law in July permitting the practice.
The law goes into effect on Nov. 1. It requires anyone who wants to carry a concealed weapon to obtain a permit from the state’s DOJ. Applicants also must receive training through courses conducted by national or state organizations that certify firearm instructors, courses offered by police departments, technical colleges and universities, or courses for police officers and private detectives.
They also must provide written proof they’ve completed such a course.
The law doesn’t lay out any minimum hour restrictions or specifically state proof-of-completion must include an instructor’s signature, although it does mandate that the proof come from an instructor or the organization that conducted the training.
The statutes call for DOJ to flesh out the permit process. The agency completed emergency rules this month, but the NRA said in a letter to Van Hollen that the regulations go beyond the law’s intent.
Specifically, the rifle association complained that applicants must take at least four hours of training and get an instructor’s signature on a completion certificate. The NRA requires its instructors to identify themselves on completion certificates, but doesn’t ask for signatures, the letter said, noting Wisconsin’s actual statutes don’t call for a minimum training hour standard or signatures.
The NRA also contended the rules’ definition of background checks is so narrow that concealed carry permit holders in nearly 20 other states may not qualify to carry in Wisconsin.
The complaints put Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a precarious position. The governor approved the rules last week but, conscious of the NRA’s clout in GOP circles, stressed he had no choice because something had to be in place by Nov. 1 and he wants to see changes in the permanent regulations.
Van Hollen said in his letter that the law states permit applicants must take a firearms training course. The Justice Department and other state agencies have the statutory authority to interpret such undefined terms and in this case must do so or anything an instructor does might qualify, negating lawmakers’ intent that permit applicants take a “course.”
After conducting significant research, DOJ found four hours is the minimum training standard in the firearms training industry, he said.
“We have clarified expectations for permit applicants, those who wish to provide training, and those who will be processing applications,” the attorney general wrote.
Requiring instructor signatures, Van Hollen said, ensures completion certificates meet the legal definition of proof. He understands NRA instructors haven’t had to sign certificates in other states, but he can’t accommodate every private organization and accept documentation that may not qualify as proof, he said.
The emergency rules also require that Wisconsin’s background check consists of running an applicant’s name through the FBI’s national criminal database. The rules state that any other state’s background check would be comparable if it includes a search of the same FBI database. Since Wisconsin requires the check, it must ask the same of non-residents.
In an acknowledgement of the NRA’s power, Van Hollen concluded the letter by saying he personally believes the law shouldn’t mandate any training, but he has to interpret the law as written and the association can weigh in on the permanent rules.
“I have no other agenda but to faithfully carry out the laws enacted by the Legislature to the best of my ability,” the attorney general wrote. “Although I cannot agree with the legal arguments presented in your letter, I respect your views and DOJ took all of the issues you have raised into account when drafting the emergency rules.”