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Handguns (copy)

Semi-automatic handguns are displayed for purchase.

State senators will take up on Tuesday a proposal to eliminate Wisconsin's 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases. But in the wake of a recent surge of gun violence in Milwaukee, Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, says the timing "couldn't be worse."

A Senate vote is the next step between the bill and Gov. Scott Walker's desk. The Assembly has yet to take it up. The governor has signaled his intentions to sign it into law.

Under current law, adopted in 1976, anyone attempting to purchase a handgun cannot acquire it until 48 hours after a background check has been started. If the Department of Justice needs more time to complete the background check, it can extend the wait by up to three days.

If Sen. Van Wanggaard's bill is passed, people will be able to take possession of handguns as soon as they clear the background check, in many cases, in a matter of hours. An amendment to the bill would allow the DOJ to take up to five days to complete a background check.

Currently, there is no waiting period for rifle purchases in Wisconsin. Wanggaard, a Racine Republican, has noted that as an argument in support of his bill.

He has said the handgun wait requirement is effectively a "time tax." 

Supporters have also noted that a majority of states have no such waiting period.

But while the bill's supporters say Wisconsin laws should be brought in line with those states, some opponents say the waiting period should even be expanded to cover all firearms purchases. 

Themes of safety and protection have emerged as arguments both against and in favor of the bill. Opponents have raised concerns about couples rushing out to purchase guns after a heated argument, while supporters argue that time is of the essence in some situations, like cases of domestic violence. 

The Senate debate comes as the communities of Madison and Milwaukee have an increased focus on gun violence.

In response to a recent spate of gun violence in Milwaukee, law enforcement and elected officials are at odds over how to address the problem.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says lawmakers play a part, but Assembly Republicans suggested last week that Barrett is searching for a scapegoat. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn says the state's laws are too weak and Milwaukee needs the Legislature's help.

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"My concerns (with the bill) are how easy it is to get guns in the hands of criminals," Barnes said. "The timing couldn't be any worse with the violence in the city of Milwaukee right now — and it's all handgun-related violence. One, I think it's kind of insensitive, and two, it's very impractical."

Barnes said the "cooling off" period under current law has been proven necessary, adding that often, someone's first reaction to a situation can be the most extreme one. Making handguns more immediately available couples the most extreme measure with that extreme reaction, he said.

He added that the bill might not relate directly to what's happening in Milwaukee, but said the crimes being committed are in large part being committed with handguns.

"The fact is, so many people are solving their problems with anger," he said. "That option, to be able to immediately get a handgun, means you can solve your problem that much quicker, in the worst way possible."

Barnes said it's "counterproductive" to discuss this bill without having a larger discussion about public safety. At the bare minimum, he said, the Legislature needs a public hearing to discuss requiring universal background checks for all gun sales in the state.

"For so long, they pretended that this does not happen, that this violence does not take place in Wisconsin," Barnes said. "To continue to just turn a blind eye, it reflects poor representation."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.