The state Assembly voted last week on party lines to reject a proposal to require universal background checks for gun purchases in Wisconsin, opting instead to offer funds for armed guards in schools and crack down on "straw purchasing."
The measure to support armed safety guards passed 71-24, with the support of all Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Students from several Madison high schools joined Assembly Democrats in calling for stricter gun control laws last Tuesday morning, hours after the state's attorney general said he is open to allowing firearms in schools. The debate follows a shooting at a high school in Florida that left 17 dead last week.
Attorney General Brad Schimel said in an interview on WTMJ radio last Tuesday that elected officials should have a "discussion" about allowing guns in schools.
State Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, introduced a bill last Monday that would allow guns in private schools. Two years ago, Kremer introduced a bill that would have allowed people with concealed weapons permits to carry guns on public school grounds and, in some cases, inside school buildings. It did not receive a vote in the Legislature.
Asked about Schimel's comments, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he believes "all of the circumstances that we are witnessing require us to be ever vigilant."
"I certainly believe there are an awful lot of folks who are law-abiding who have done nothing wrong who could probably defend themselves," Vos said, adding that he generally supports allowing local school districts to make their own decisions.
However, he noted, previous proposals on the subject have not generated the kind of broad support he'd like to see before bringing them to the floor.
"I'm open to talking about it," Vos said. "That doesn't mean we're going to have a bill. It doesn't mean there's something to propose."
Democratic lawmakers sent letters to Vos, Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, urging them to pass bills that would implement universal background checks for gun purchases, ban the sale, manufacture or use of bump stocks and ban anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense from owning a firearm.
Vos dismissed the move as a media stunt, arguing Democrats could have called him personally if they were serious.
"This is all about politics, and I think it’s really sad and it's really cynical because they are preying on the fears of some Wisconsinites and using it for their own political purposes," Vos said.
During the Assembly floor session last Tuesday, Democrats pulled from a committee a bill that would require universal background checks for firearm purchases. Republicans allowed the bill to come to the floor, then introduced a substitute amendment that would offer grants to school districts that employ armed safety officers.
Lawmakers then spent several hours engaged in a procedural battle.
Ultimately, Republicans shot down the background checks bill. Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she didn't necessarily disagree with the proposal but said she objected to the process by which Democrats brought it to the floor.
Republicans instead opted to approve an amendment to the bill introduced by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and a proposal introduced by Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc.
The bill, as passed offers an unspecified amount of funds for school districts that employ armed safety guards. Kleefisch said the measure will allow parents to have "the unabashed confidence that at the end of the day, their kids are coming home."
It also establishes mandatory minimum sentences for people who commit multiple gun-related crimes and cracks down on "straw purchasing" — purchasing a gun for someone who is prohibited from owning one — by making it a Class G felony.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she supported the Republican proposal, but argued that lawmakers didn't need to choose between that bill and the background check proposal.
"We can do both. If this Legislature actually cared about the issues, we could have a real conversation about respecting gun owners and ensuring the safety of our school children," Shankland said.
During a news conference with Democratic lawmakers last week, students from local high schools bristled at Schimel's comments about guns in schools.
"I feel like the bigger question that needs to be asked and answered is what can we do to take precautions to prevent this from happening," said Annabel Stattelman-Scanlan, a junior at Madison East High School. "We need to be looking at the causes of these problems and not just trying to minimize the impacts and the effects."
Anne Motoviloff, a junior at Madison East, said her family owns guns for hunting, but she supports universal background checks. Motoviloff said she feels that the government values guns over the lives of students. She blamed the influence of the National Rifle Association.
School shootings have been "a reality" for current high school students their entire lives, said Madison East sophomore Lydia Hester.
"From kindergarten, I’ve learned how to sit under a desk and be silent so a shooter doesn’t hurt us. This is not something that a 5-year-old should have to think about," Hester said.