By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans who continue to largely dismiss Gov. Tony Evers’ call to pass gun-safety legislation introduced a series of bills on Tuesday designed to bolster mental-health services in the state, a step they said was not in response to recent mass shootings.
Evers has called for the GOP-controlled Legislature to pass universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would establish a legal process to take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others. But Republican legislative leaders have instead stressed the need to improve mental-health services.
“If I did have the answer, or if any other legislator had a clear answer to this issue, we would have already implemented it,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, adding that Congress should play a role. “It’s frustrating, I think, because every time one of these incidents happened we kind of wring our hands and say ‘What can we do?'”
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat, said lawmakers should do “everything possible while respecting Second Amendment rights” when it comes to combating gun violence. He said Democrats will introduce universal background checks and “red flag” bills and hope to receive bipartisan support.
“I don’t think anybody in our country right now can ignore gun violence and mass shootings,” Hintz said.
Fitzgerald told reporters he didn’t support a universal background-check law for gun sales because that would mean registering firearm sales. He said “there is always going to be a constituency who vote Republican and … they are going to be opposed to it.”
However, he said he would be open to adding to the types of offenses in which the people charged could have their guns taken away. Wisconsin law already allows for taking weapons away from people who are under a restraining order for domestic violence or injunction.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who appeared together at a forum Tuesday, named the background check or “red flag” bills as priorities for the remainder of the legislative session.
Vos repeated that he did not want to take away Second Amendment rights and said he wanted to concentrate on topics that will bring Republicans and Democrats together such as water quality, increasing adoptions and suicide prevention. Fitzgerald said he wants to work on criminal-justice reform and issues bearing on the state prison system.
Last week, Evers called on Republicans to pass the bills. Evers and Vos were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, and a meeting with Fitzgerald had not yet been scheduled, said Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff.
Vos said last week that he hoped to find common ground with Evers on mental-health matters, which he called the “real problem.”
On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Tittl, chairman of the Assembly’s mental-health committee, was the latest Republican to refuse to answer questions about whether he supports a universal background check.
And he said a series of mental-health bills that he and other Republican lawmakers and advocates released was part of a yearslong push to improve mental health services and not a response to shootings this month in Texas and Ohio, attacks that left 31 people dead.
Tittl noted that he first served on a legislative task force on mental health in 2013.
“We have cared all along about mental health,” Tittl said. “This is not a reaction at all to any of the shootings. This is basically a reaction to what we’re working on.”
The bills would offer grants to mental-health centers and nonprofit groups throughout the state as a way to ensure services are available; provide a $100,000 income-tax deduction to psychiatrists (an amount that would be doubled for those in rural areas to entice people to work in those places); and revise standards and practices for psychologists.
Those who spoke in support of the measures at a Capitol news conference included a person who said he’s been battling mental illness for more than 25 years, the leader of the state Boys & Girls Clubs and the head of a Painting Pathways Clubhouse that provides mental-health services.