Tony Evers announces background checks bill (copy)

Gov. Tony Evers, right, announces a bill that would expand background checks to most private gun sales in the state. Other speakers at the event included Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, left, who delivered remarks about constituents in her district who have been affected by gun violence, and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, center.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I do not want the government to take your guns.

If you are going to commit crimes with your guns, I actually do want the government to take them. But my rough understanding of the audience for this column is that it does not include many, if any, people who are inclined to commit crimes with their guns. It also probably includes a fair amount of people who don’t have any guns to be taken in the first place. Yes, I'm one of them, too, though I do enjoy target shooting and deer hunting.

Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s talk.

I mean it. Let’s have a real, meaningful discussion about how to prevent gun violence. Let’s debate the merits of the proposals that have been reintroduced and summarily dismissed session after session in Wisconsin’s Legislature. Let’s schedule public hearings for the bill proposed last week by Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, that would require background checks for the sale or transfer of most guns in Wisconsin.

I’m not under the illusion that expanded background checks or “red flag” laws will eradicate violence. I do think they’re pretty good ideas that would prevent violence in some cases. I happen to believe we should make these proposals law here in Wisconsin.

At the very least, these proposals warrant a debate in our state Capitol. A large majority of Wisconsin residents agree. A Marquette University Law School poll in March 2018 found that 81% of voters here support universal background checks, and 78% of state voters who own guns support the policy.

Mass shootings aren’t the only symptom of our gun violence epidemic, but their swift lethality shocks us to our core in a way that leaves us throwing up our hands, searching for answers. Why does it happen? What will stop it?

Something has to change, we say. We have to do something.

As much as we want a magic solution, we all know there isn’t one. That doesn’t mean incremental changes aren’t worth pursuing. It certainly doesn’t mean incremental changes aren’t worth discussing.

Johnson and Sargent’s bill — announced with the support of Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul — is a reasonable proposal.

Broadly speaking, it would require the sale or transfer of firearms to occur through a federally licensed dealer and to involve a background check of the person planning to buy or receive the gun. It contains a few appropriate exemptions: giving a gun to a family member as a gift or inheritance, selling or transferring a gun that is classified as an antique, and selling or transferring a gun to a firearms dealer, law enforcement agency or military agency.

"Most murders are committed by people who are not legally allowed to have firearms, whether because they have disqualifying criminal records or because they are too young. Obviously, though, they don’t pay much attention to the laws barring them from gun possession. The idea behind background checks is to leverage the law-abiding nature of other people who might stop guns from falling into these folks’ hands,” Robert Verbruggen wrote in a recent column for the National Review, a conservative publication where he is the deputy managing editor.

For a real-world example, we need look no further than Brookfield, where Radcliffe F. Haughton shot seven women and killed three, including his wife, at the Azana Salon & Spa in 2012. Days before Haughton purchased a .40-caliber handgun and high-capacity magazines from a seller on the website Armslist, a judge issued a restraining order against him that, under federal law, prohibited him from owning or purchasing a gun.

By going through a private seller online, Haughton was not subject to a background check. It’s impossible to know if different laws would have prevented the shooting. But the laws we are talking about could have. It’s what they’re designed to do.

“Gun violence has seemingly become a foregone conclusion,” Evers said in a news conference last week. “Somewhere along the way we’ve let ‘if’ become ‘when’ and haven’t given it a second thought. And because of this, we’ve let an entire generation of kids grow up without the luxury of assuming their grocery stores, their sidewalks, their playgrounds and classrooms are safe.”

Republican legislative leaders have responded to this legislation by casting doubts on its effectiveness, arguing that they are instead focusing on the “root cause” of these shootings: mental health issues.

"What's the real issue why these mass shootings happen?" Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told WISN’s conservative radio talk show host Jay Weber last week. "If you look at the real root cause there's a whole lot of issues there focused on either mental health, trauma, a single parent — lots of things that are also a factor, and that's not to say everyone who has a single parent is going to become a mass murderer, just like saying every person who owns a weapon isn't going to be someone who goes out and kills a bunch of people."

Groups like the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have pushed back on efforts to link mass shootings to mental illness, but both organizations agree mental health programs need more funding. There’s little doubt that if we provided better support for those who have experienced trauma and mental illness, things would be a lot better for everyone. Recently introduced GOP bills would update standards and practices for psychologists, create an income tax deduction for psychiatrists and provide grant money for mental health centers and nonprofits throughout the state.

But isn’t easy access to guns also a root cause of gun violence?

Even many gun rights advocates agree with that statement on some level. Assembly Republicans, for example, have shown a willingness to strengthen the background check process before.

Last year, they approved a measure that would have expanded the number of data sources consulted in background checks for rifle and shotgun purchases. At the time, Vos said the measure would address "the real root of the problem" of school violence without infringing on anyone's legal right to own a gun.

Just as Vos has, over time, acknowledged multiple “root” causes of gun violence, so, too, should policy intended to address it. We can provide better mental health services and enact policy designed to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. So let’s talk about it, and then let’s do something.

This column has been updated to clarify the exemptions included in the proposed background check legislation.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.