When Wisconsin’s law allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons goes into effect, Shawn Winrich is likely to take advantage of it. But if he does, he’ll do it grudgingly.
Winrich, a 34-year-old Madison resident and a member of the gun rights group Wisconsin Carry, likes to carry his Glock 17. He’s done it openly for about a year, but he doesn’t like the idea of paying a permit fee to carry it concealed.
“The bill is somewhat reasonable,” says Winrich. “But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a violation of the constitutional rights that are secured by the state Constitution, which says (you can carry firearms for) ‘any lawful purpose’ and the U.S. Constitution says ‘these rights shall not be infringed.’ But yet the state still thinks it can regulate and impose a tax on guns. And that’s just not right.”
The law is not ideal in the eyes of the National Rifle Association and other gun groups, either.
They wanted a so-called “constitutional carry” system that allows anyone who can legally own a firearm to carry it without a permit. After it gained some legislative support, Gov. Scott Walker sank such a proposal by saying he wouldn’t sign a bill that didn’t require permitting and training. So those mandates are in the bill that passed the state Senate last week and passed the Assembly on Tuesday.
But together with the state’s permissive open carry law, which allows people to carry firearms in plain sight, those getting a concealed carry permit will be able to have their handgun with them nearly everywhere they go, including in cars, on college campus grounds, in parks, near school grounds, and in public buildings that don’t post a no-gun policy.
“It’s what’s politically viable, and we’re definitely taking a big step forward,” says Darren LaSorte, one of four NRA lobbyists working in the state.
Once a proponent of training and permitting concealed carriers, the NRA is now on a mission to get rid of those mandates, putting the group more in line with groups like the Gun Owners of America and Wisconsin Gun Owners, which has in the past blasted the NRA for being too willing to compromise.
Eradicating the training and permitting mandates, LaSorte says, “will certainly be an aspiration of ours down the road.”
But not everyone is thrilled with the idea of living in a world where the person next to them might be packing heat. In fact, according to a poll commissioned last month by Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE), most Wisconsin residents oppose the law. The survey of 500 Wisconsin voters, conducted by the progressive polling group Third Eye Strategies of Springfield, Va., found that 60 percent of the respondents were against the concealed carry laws.
“The people of Wisconsin, by a 2-1 margin, are opposed to this, so the Legislature is not doing the work of the people,” says Jeri Bonavia, WAVE’s executive director. “They’re doing the work of a special interest group. And that has been the case across the country. In polls that were done in states that passed these laws the people were consistently opposed to it.”
Several other polls bear her out. In April the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence commissioned a poll that showed two-thirds of voters in that state opposed the carrying of concealed, loaded handguns.
And in Ohio, where a recent poll of 600 voters commissioned by the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition found that 80 percent of Ohioans and 77 percent of gun owners oppose proposals to allow guns in bars, clubs and other businesses where alcohol is served, a proposal to do just that appears set to be passed into law.
LaSorte says such polls, usually commissioned by groups opposed to concealed carry, are engineered to fit an anti-gun agenda. And even if there is a majority opposed to concealed carry, which he doesn’t believe, he says decisions are made based on informed representation, not polls.
“We’re definitely a republic and not a democracy,” he says. “That’s why we have representatives and senators making decisions, not putting everything to a direct vote of the people.”
The poll commissioned by WAVE is consistent with a 2003 Badger Poll, done by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, that showed a 69 percent opposition to concealed carry.
Nationally, in a 2005 USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 65 percent of Americans said they would feel less safe in a place that allows loaded, concealed weapons.
But the NRA is on a roll. The group is working tirelessly to get states to allow guns in virtually all public places. With Wisconsin off its list of states that ban concealed carry, Illinois is the lone holdout, and the battle there is intense. But even if Illinois falls, the push for gun rights is by no means over.
“The fight is never over, unfortunately,” says LaSorte. “There are always attacks that we have to deal with and always some rights we have to regain.”
• • • •
The NRA’s wildly successful state-by-state campaign to legalize concealed firearms in public has been going on since the 1980s. Some concealed carry laws are more liberal than others. Since 1986, the NRA has been able to increase from eight to 38 the number of states that “shall issue” concealed carry permits, meaning they will issue permits to anyone who passes the criteria set by law. The NRA is working to change laws in eight other “may issue” states, which give discretion to law enforcement regarding who can receive a permit.
Last year, Arizona passed one of the most permissive concealed carry reform bills in the nation, rolling back training requirements and making the state, along with Alaska and Vermont, the only “constitutional carry” states in the nation. Wyoming made the list earlier this year, and while eight states have turned back attempts to throw out their permit requirements this year, proposed constitutional carry legislation is still on the table in Iowa, Ohio, Georgia and New Hampshire.
But the NRA is nothing if not patient. And if pro-gun legislation fails, it’s only a matter of time before it surfaces again.
“We’re just taking the logical incremental steps of improving the system to the point where citizens have the freedoms they once had here in Wisconsin more than 100 years ago,” LaSorte says.
He attributes the NRA’s change in policy regarding permitting to the fact that concealed carry hasn’t caused problems in other states.
But gun control advocates say otherwise.
On its website, the Violence Policy Center keeps a running total of “concealed carry killers,” citizens legally permitted to carry firearms who have committed murder. Since May 2007, the group has documented 309 people killed by legal carriers, including 11 law enforcement officers. The list of offenders includes Jared Lee Loughner, who in January opened fire at an event in Tucson, Ariz., held by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, killing six and gravely wounding several others, including Giffords.
And when chinks in the permit systems in Texas and Florida were exposed by media reports, the NRA went back to legislatures to make the names of permit holders off-limits to the public, as they will be in Wisconsin. Among other problems, journalists found that hundreds of felons were issued permits to carry concealed weapons.
But concealed carry is being sold as an anti-crime initiative that allows citizens to protect themselves and makes bad guys wonder if their intended victims are packing heat.
In the past, conservative politicians have striven to win the support of law enforcement when proposing tough-on-crime laws. But several law enforcement leaders in Wisconsin have blasted the concealed carry proposal, which doesn’t allow officers to access the names of concealed carry permit holders during routine traffic stops.
Both Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney have said they’re concerned about the lack of access to that information, which they say could endanger officers.
Local government officials opposed to concealed carry are looking for ways to limit the places people would be allowed to go armed. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is hoping to pass an ordinance requiring written permission for gun owners to carry a weapon on private property.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has announced a resolution to ban guns in county facilities, which in addition to county offices include the Henry Vilas Zoo, the Alliant Energy Center and the Dane County Airport.
“Citizens should not have to worry about hidden guns when picking up a marriage certificate, voting or going to a concert,” he says.
• • • •
Don’t expect the NRA or its allies to let that go unchallenged. The group has been chipping away at gun restrictions throughout the nation, including the following measures compiled by Legal Community Against Violence that have been enacted this year:
• Indiana enacted a law that makes it illegal for local governments to prohibit firearms in public libraries, on public transit, in some hospitals and in most local government buildings.
• Florida has adopted a law that prohibits health care providers from asking about or recording information about firearm ownership or the presence of firearms in the home.
• North Dakota enacted a law prohibiting employers from asking if customers or employees are carrying a gun.
• Utah passed a law that allows concealed firearms in parks and stadiums being used for K-12 school activities.
• Both Utah and Arizona have also adopted official state guns.
The NRA has also managed to squelch federal research dollars for studies that explore the effects of gun ownership, stripping millions from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention.
It’s a hot potato in academia, too, and some researchers have decided to hand it off.
“I’ve gotten out of the gun research business,” says James Wright, a University of Central Florida sociology professor who in the 1980s came to the conclusion that more guns in society deter crime. “The topic is too ‘hot’ and politically charged to permit unbiased, objective scholarship and I grew weary of having my views and findings misrepresented in media accounts, and, for that matter, by other scholars.”
David Hemenway, a Harvard public health researcher who has been involved in several groundbreaking studies involving gun ownership, injury and death, calls gun research “incredibly political.”
Meanwhile, the NRA repeatedly points to academic studies done by economist John Lott, who argued that crime goes down in concert with the implementation of concealed carry laws, and Gary Kleck, who contended that guns are used for defensive purposes 2.5 million times a year in the U.S.
Both studies have been roundly criticized in academic circles, but yet they provide timeless fodder for pro-gun groups.
While research on both sides has failed to show for certain whether concealed carry laws have any effect one way or another on crime, a study done by Hemenway and another researcher for the World Health Organization found that the U.S. was off the chart for gun deaths. In a study of 23 high-income countries in 2003 there were 29,771 firearms deaths in the U.S. and 7,653 firearms deaths in the other 22 countries combined.
Hemenway says further that crime rates in the U.S. are similar to other industrialized countries. “It’s only the gun stuff where we look so different.”
• • • •
One of the chief underlying aims of pro-gun groups is to normalize guns as a fact of life. And while concealed carry is the subject of heated debate, gun carriers see open carry as both a way to keep trouble at bay — the theory being that no criminal is going to assault you if you have a gun — and as the best tool for educating the public.
And besides, the gun carriers interviewed for this story say, people usually don’t notice anyway.
I had my doubts about that, so I borrowed a gun from Winrich and took a short walk down State Street at lunchtime earlier this month.
Sure enough, nobody noticed. It was as obvious as could be, up against a yellow plaid button-down shirt. But in this age where half the people wearing belts are packing holstered Blackberries or some other electronic device, it was just another accoutrement, hardly noticeable. If anyone saw it, they probably just thought I was a cop.
Winrich didn’t look like a cop, though. He wore a loose black T-shirt and jeans, with his gun positioned on his hip. In the half-hour or so I spent with him on State Street, he drew no attention.
You might remember Winrich as one of the Culver’s Five, a group of men who met at an east side Culver’s last fall to have dinner, all of them carrying openly. Concerned, a patron called police, who showed up, questioned the men and handed two of them tickets for obstruction for refusing to identify themselves. The cops later rescinded the tickets, then issued all five men disorderly conduct citations, which were later thrown out.
The city now faces a civil lawsuit over the incident, filed by Wisconsin Carry.
“Ever since Culver’s, I’m telling you, it’s been a lot easier,” Winrich says. “I think it’s all the media out there saying, ‘Hey, this is legal and this is what’s going on and this is what happened to these guys.’ ”
I find Wisconsin’s open carry law more perplexing than concealed carry. To tell you the truth, I’d rather not know if the guy next to me is packing heat. It puts me on edge.
Wisconsin is one of a majority of states that allow people to carry firearms openly, and there is no permit and no training required. All you have to do is legally own a gun.
If people knew the reality of the situation, I think some would have been uncomfortable with the thought of a loaded firearm (actually, I had Winrich take the bullets out) being carried by a private citizen like me, who hasn’t fired a gun in years.
But carrying a weapon is not for me. I rarely feel unsafe, and wearing a gun seems like too much work.
Being a former infantry soldier, I’ve had the chance to shoot a few weapons, including M16s and Colt .45s. I’ve had the pleasure of spraying a jeep with .50-caliber machine gun fire. I’ve thrown grenades, launched a LAWS (light anti-armor weapons system) rocket at an armored personnel carrier and blown up numerous vehicles with mortars. And let me tell you, it’s a lot of fun.
I’ve also had to march around, eat, go to the bathroom, sleep, work on vehicles and do just about everything else while toting a gun, and that’s not fun at all. When you have a gun, especially when it’s loaded, you have to think about it all the time.
Winrich and other gun owners say that when they carry a gun, they’re hyper-alert.
Auric Gold, a founding member of Wisconsin Carry, says: “I’m more aware when I’m open carrying of who’s around me and how close they are. If I don’t know people I make it as difficult as I possibly can for anybody to approach me from a direction I can’t see or have a good reach on my gun.”
• • • •
The fervor with which the NRA and other groups pursue gun regulation is driven in no small part by devoted adherents like Gold, Winrich and others I talked to who train, know the mechanics of their weapons, and strive to project the image of a responsible gun owner.
The legislative success of gun carriers, though, is hugely disproportionate to their actual numbers. They tend to be over 30, male and white, although the number of women carrying openly seems to be on the uptick, Gold says.
Bonavia of WAVE, who has reviewed how the permitting process works in other states, says she expects about 1 percent of Wisconsin residents to apply for concealed carry permits, and even fewer to routinely carry firearms.
In last month’s poll commissioned by WAVE, Democrats and independents, both men and women, opposed concealed carry by wide margins. By a slight margin, so did Republican women. Only with Republican men did the law win a majority of supporters.
More specifically, Bonavia says, the core support group is made up of non-college-educated Republicans who own handguns.
“It’s this one group of people that is kind of driving support for it,” she says.
She notes, however, that the gun industry, which bankrolls part of the NRA’s lobbying effort, is also a big winner. Since concealed carry laws have become the law of the land, sales of concealable handguns have been brisk, as have the purses, pouches and other accessories that go with them.
“It has nothing to do with safety,” Bonavia says of concealed carry laws. “It has everything to do with profits.”
• • • •
But those who want to carry say otherwise.
“Bottom line, it’s safety,” says Winrich. “If you have a means to protect yourself, you’re able to. I keep an eye on what goes on in the news. There are people getting assaulted and stabbed on the street.”
And some say it isn’t reasonable to treat concealed carry differently than open carry.
“I can open carry without any legal issues or permission, but I have to get permission from the government and pay an extra tax to be able to cover it with my shirt or my jacket,” says Winrich. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Winrich and other gun advocates feel that to be practical, open carry and concealed carry laws should have the same standards so that people can choose the mode of carry that is most appropriate in any given situation or season.
“In the middle of winter, I’m going to carry concealed because I want to put a coat on, darn it,” says Krysta Sutterfield, 42. “In the middle of summer there are times when it’s going to be easier to carry openly. And there are times it would be either more polite or safer to carry concealed. If I go to a concert or a street festival or something, among that many people I would rather have it concealed just so nobody else tries to get an idea in their head of grabbing it.”
Last year, Sutterfield made the news for carrying her loaded Glock 17 to a Unitarian Universalist Church in Brookfield. Police were called to the scene and she was found in her car with the loaded weapon, which is currently illegal. She was ticketed for transporting a loaded firearm in a car, something that will be legal once Wisconsin’s concealed carry law goes into effect.
Sutterfield says she was robbed once while working at a central Ohio collection agency and has also been the victim of rape. But her wake-up moment was when she heard someone downstairs in her Milwaukee apartment.
It turned out to be her boyfriend, “but if he had been a criminal, there’s nothing I could have done to stop him,” she says.
After a year of soul-searching, she chose her weapons. Now she owns two Glock 17s and a Kel-Tec P11.
“There came a certain point where I realized I’m getting older, I’m getting slower, weaker,” says Sutterfield. “Criminals are half my age, young strong guys. I want something to even the playing field.”
Sue Ackland of Minocqua carries openly, but it’s usually for protection against animals while she takes walks in the woods. But she plans to take advantage of the concealed carry law when it goes into effect.
A zoning officer for the town of Lac du Flambeau, Ackland was investigating a zoning violation when a property owner came at her vehicle with an ax raised over his head.
She put the vehicle in reverse and “got the hell out of there.” The man subsequently harassed her at her office.
For obvious reasons, she doesn’t carry her weapon openly to people’s properties. But when concealed carry passes, she says, “I’ll carry one.”
Gun control groups like WAVE and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence say they’re not out to ban guns. They say sensible gun laws can give access to firearms to those who are endangered or threatened. They just don’t see how allowing more guns in the public sphere is sensible.
“We understand there are benefits to having guns,” Bonavia says. “I grew up in a gun-owning family. But the important thing is understanding that there are risks involved too. And when you have a gun in your home you’re assuming those risks for yourself and for your family. When you’re bringing a gun out in public you’re forcing those risks out onto everyone else, without their permission.”