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Adam Schesch has owned firearms for 30 years and once fought a proposed handgun ban in Madison. But he doesn’t support gun owners who carry their weapons at restaurants and public places. “There is no reason for a person to come with a pistol strapped to his hip at a family restaurant,” he said.

Two Aprils ago, Auric Gold of Madison had a first meeting with about 10 other activists in the state to discuss open carry of handguns, then a nascent movement mostly confined to Internet forums.

“We were thinking it was time to jumpstart it,” the former state equal-rights officer said.

Little did they expect that, the next day, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen would issue an opinion affirming a legal green light to law-abiding gun owners to carry their weapons openly in most public places.

“That kind of changed everything,” Gold said. “It provided a huge boost to the movement.”

More people joined the activist group, Wisconsin Carry, Inc., and more people have taken to wearing their weapons in public, be it out for a walk, watching a parade, at a picnic — or, as at an East Side Culver’s this month, at dinner with friends.

That meal — part of a series of open carry events in public places organized by the group — led to a confrontation between five armed men and police. And the ongoing legal back-and-forth it ignited has rippled far beyond their group: it’s prompted businesses to consider handgun policies, made some residents uneasy and highlighted the issue again for lawmakers, who could address the similarly volatile concealed-carry issue next spring.

Gold says the dust-up, culminating in disorderly conduct charges against all five men who ate at the Culver’s, brought in new members and donations, which may be used to file a federal lawsuit against the Madison Police Department.

But it’s also created a backlash against the open carry advocates from some unlikely sources: other gun owners.

“I don’t think (open carry advocates) represent ordinary family-oriented gun owners,” said Adam Schesch of north Madison, a 68-year-old target shooter and deer hunter who testified against then-mayor Paul Soglin’s gun-control efforts in 1994.

Schesch said he and his wife frequently eat out with their teen-age grandchildren at places like Culver’s.

“If we came into a restaurant and saw people with guns, we’d turn around and walk out,” he said. “I would feel really unsafe.”

But open carry advocates say they feel unsafe without their guns, and others should, too.

“At the moment you’re getting your head beat in, you probably wouldn’t mind someone being on scene with a gun,” Gold said.

Open carry laws in Wisconsin

Wisconsin allows open carry of weapons except in schools, taverns and public buildings and restricts their possession in state parks. The state is one of two that doesn’t issue concealed weapon permits; Illinois is the other.

Wisconsin Carry registers about 100 new members a month, Gold said, and has garnered a steady stream of attention for incidents like the one in Madison.

“People like to stereotype us as right-wing rednecks, but obviously they don’t know me,” he said, describing himself as a political moderate who’s atheist and strongly supports gay rights and abortion rights.

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He said part of the group’s aim is to make the sight of handguns being carried openly more regular and less threatening.

But the sight of guns clearly does arouse suspicion and fear in some people and thus places businesses in a tough spot.

Private businesses can ban weapons, but it forces them to decide whether to alienate advocates of open-carry or customers who, like the 62-year-old woman who called Madison police upon seeing the five men with pistols in Culver’s, see guns and fear the worst.

“I think it’s unfair to put small business owners in the middle of this,” said Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. “Taking sides on a contentious issue is kind of risky.”

When consulted by Culvers, Hanson said he advised the popular chain to remain neutral.

Concealed carry next?

On the legislative front, gun proponents see reason for hope with Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle leaving office next January.

Doyle has twice vetoed bills that would allow concealed carry permits.

“The vast majority of the Legislature has been for concealed carry for many years, but Jim Doyle doesn’t like it,” said Larry Gleasman, owner of Grampa’s Gun Shop on Williamson Street. “As soon as he’s out of office we’ll have concealed carry.”

Gold said that he and others in open carry groups mostly go unnoticed by other citizens and undisturbed by police.

“Madison seemed to march to its own drum on this one,” he said.

John Charewicz, Portage County sheriff, came into conflict with the group in June, when Wisconsin Carry planned one of its picnics — which the group continues to hold throughout the state, including one Saturday in Baraboo — at a county park in Plover.

The sheriff warned in advance that deputies may cite people under a longstanding county ordinance against firearms in county parks. He said he was also personally uncomfortable with the idea of guns in parks.

“I don’t think bringing handguns is called for at places where families go,” he said. “It causes more disturbance and distraction than it accomplishes anything.”

Rather than risk a standoff with deputies, the group moved its picnic to a city park in Stevens Point, which doesn’t ban handguns in parks.

Gold said the group understands that some people, and some police, will react differently to people wearing holsters and carrying pistols and the group tries to work peacefully to resolve disagreements.

“Most of our encounters with police aren’t negative like the one in Madison turned out to be,” he said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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