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Assembly passes bills to expand gun rights, tackle rising drug use

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The state Assembly approved several Republican-authored bills Thursday that would dramatically expand gun rights in Wisconsin and increase gun access in places of worship and school grounds.

The first session of the midterm election year also saw the Assembly pass measures that would tackle rising drug use, increase working hours for teenagers and criminalize the destruction of vaccines.

The gun legislation passed Thursday on voice votes would allow people with concealed carry licenses to go armed on school grounds and in churches attached to private schools; lower the minimum age for obtaining a concealed carry license from 21 to 18; allow high schools to offer a firearm course; and allow anyone with a concealed carry license from any state to go armed in Wisconsin. Right now only people with licenses from states that conduct background checks on applicants can carry concealed in Wisconsin.

With the Assembly approval, the bills are headed to the Senate. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has pushed for stricter gun laws rather than more lenient measures, said Thursday he will review the concealed carry bills if they reach his desk, but came short of saying he would veto the measures.

He added the proposal to lower the minimum age to legally carry a concealed weapon from 21 to 18 “sounds pretty bizarre to me.”

While the Republican proposals passed on the Assembly floor, gun violence continues to increase; more than 1,400 people have been injured in nonfatal shootings in Milwaukee since January 2020, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission.

But Republican legislators face reelection in 10 months and are looking for ways to please their supporters and give themselves talking points on the campaign trail. Voting on gun rights delivers on both counts regardless of if the bills become law. The proposed gun measures are also a sign of what bills can become law next year if a Republican wins the gubernatorial election.

At an Assembly Democratic press conference ahead of the floor session, Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said, “Let me be crystal clear that these bills are not about making our schools safer, they are not about making our churches or synagogues or mosques or other places of worship safer. These are about appealing to the big gun lobby.”

The bills’ supporters have long argued that under current law gun owners who forget their weapons in their cars could be charged with a felony if they drive onto school grounds to drop off or pick up their children. The bill that would allow them to bring guns legally in cars on school grounds passed the Assembly Thursday.

They also contend that 18-year-olds can legally possess handguns so they should be allowed to carry concealed and churchgoers should be allowed to go armed so they can defend themselves if they’re attacked during services. Both bills passed the Assembly Thursday.

“Our Second Amendment rights, those are just critically important to everybody across Wisconsin,” said Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, the chief Assembly sponsor of the bill to lower the concealed carry minimum age, at a news conference before the session began.

Debating on the Assembly floor, Democratic lawmakers in opposition to the bill said teenagers’ greater access to firearms would result in more violence and suicides.

Rep. Lee Snodgrass, D-Appleton, in opposition to the bill, also mentioned that people do not fully develop the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls rational thinking, until the age of 25.

In response, Sortwell said legal adults who can vote and serve in a military should be able to carry a gun.

“I’m curious what other rights some people on the other side of the aisle would like to deny to 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds,” he said.

As for out-of-state concealed carry licenses, they say current law is confusing and requires people to navigate a maze of red tape. The bill that would clear some of the red tape passed the Assembly Thursday.

And as for teaching a gun safety class to high schoolers, Republican lawmakers say that teaching teenagers to use guns safely would potentially save their lives if they needed a gun as well as prevent them from accidentally discharging a gun. A similar bill came up in 2017 when Republicans controlled the Legislature and governor’s office but did not pass.

The National Rifle Association has registered in support of every gun bill on the Assembly floor Thursday besides the high school gun class, whose only registered supporter is Wisconsin Gun Owners, Inc.

An array of organizations have registered in opposition to the bills, including the city of Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin: the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Vaccines to be protected

Intentionally damaging vaccines would be a felony under another bill that passed the Assembly on a voice vote Thursday.

The measure comes in response to a pharmacist in a Milwaukee suburb spoiling more than 500 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in January 2021. He pleaded guilty to the federal charges and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Bill supporters say state law needs to be clarified because it doesn’t adequately address crimes related to tampering with vaccines and other medical products. The pharmacist who destroyed the vaccine doses at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton was convicted of two federal charges of attempting to tamper with a consumer product.

The proposal in front of the Assembly Thursday would make it a Class I felony to intentionally make a vaccine unsafe, tainted, spoiled, ineffective or otherwise unusable. That is punishable by up to 3½ years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Senate passed the bill in June. If the Assembly passes it Thursday, it would then head to Evers for his consideration.

Bill would up teen work hours

Another bill, which would allow teenagers to work longer hours during the busy summer tourism months, passed the Assembly on a voice vote Thursday.

The measure is backed by Republicans and the state’s hotel, restaurant and grocery industries, but opposed by Democrats and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. The state Senate passed it on a voice vote in October.

Current law does not allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work later than 7 p.m. from after Labor Day until May 31 and no later than 9 p.m. over the summer.

The bill would allow employees under age 16 to work until 11 p.m. when they don’t have school the next day. The changes would not affect businesses covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes those with annual sales over $500,000.

Supporters say the changes will help smaller businesses struggling with the state’s worker shortage and be a particular benefit over the summer and weekends when the need is highest for more workers.

The AFL-CIO opposes the measure, saying it rolls back child labor protection laws and supporters have not shown why the change is needed.

Bills tackle drug use, addiction

With no debate, the Assembly passed a bill on a voice vote Thursday that would allow social workers to treat substance use disorder as a specialty without needing certification or continued education, greatly expanding who can treat people with addictions as opioid use rates skyrocket in Wisconsin.

In 2020, 34% more people died from opioids than in the previous year. The 2020 death rate is the highest on record second only to 2017 in opioid hospitalization rate.

Similarly, the Assembly passed a bill on a voice vote that would allow the Department of Health Services to award grants to train substance use disorder treatment providers on treatment models for people with methamphetamine addictions.

Speaking about the bill, Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, who earlier Thursday noted his proximity to people with addictions, said the drug use rate across Wisconsin is “crazy,” referring in particular to fentanyl.

State Journal reporter Alexander Shur contributed to this report.

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