The Wisconsin Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow concealed weapons in the state Capitol and other public places, but not in police stations, courthouse and other specifically exempted locations.
The final vote was 25-8, with all 19 Republicans and six Democrats supporting it, and the other eight Democrats opposed.
Wisconsin would become the 49th state to legalize carrying hidden guns. Those who want to carry the weapons would have to obtain a permit.
Before the bill goes to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who backs the measure, it must also pass the Assembly. That could happen later in the week.
Republicans said the measure will help people take control over their own safety, particularly since there are felons who obtain guns even though they're not supposed to have them.
"This is about allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves," said Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee.
Under the measure, weapons would be allowed everywhere except police stations, jails, courthouses, government buildings that screen for weapons and beyond airport security checkpoints. Weapons would also be prohibited in places where posted notices bar them, and also in specifically exempted sites such as Milwaukee's Summerfest music festival.
Some Democrats pointed to the exemptions as proof that allowing concealed carry does introduce a new set of dangers.
"If this bill helps make Wisconsin safer, then why are there any exceptions?" said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville. "Are some citizens of Wisconsin protected by this bill and others aren't? If you go to the county fair are you not as safe as if you go to Summerfest?"
Dozens of people packed the meeting and watched the proceedings in silence.
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Wisconsin and Illinois are the only states that prohibit concealed weapons. Wisconsin Republicans have been pushing to legalize the practice for years, but former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle blocked them, twice vetoing bills that would have permitted concealed weapons during his two terms in office.
Before Tuesday's vote, Democrats introduced about 20 amendments that would have expanded the number of locations where concealed carry wouldn't be allowed. Those sites included the Capitol, polling places and places of worship. Those amendments were all voted down.
Several Democrats, including Sens. Fred Risser and Jon Erpenbach, said it was "no-brainer" to exempt the Capitol because some debates could grow so impassioned that just a single visitor who becomes irrational could do some serious damage.
But Republican Sen. Pam Galloway, the bill's author, said the same standards should apply everywhere.
"It would be hypocritical of us to carve out the state Capitol as a building prohibited from carrying concealed weapons," she said.
The Democrats who voted for the measure were Sens. Jim Holperin, Robert Jauch, Julie Lassa, Lena Taylor, Kathleen Vinehout and Robert Wirch.
Holperin, from Conover, said Wisconsin ranks 25th in the nation in violent crimes.
"So will this bill make the state any safer? Probably not. Will it make the state more dangerous? Probably not," he said. "But we just need to get on with the business of conforming with the other 48 states, conforming with the wishes of the voters and complying with our Constitution."
Sen. Spencer Coggs, a Democrat from Milwaukee, disagreed. He said the way to deal with violence in cities wasn't to encourage people to carry hidden weapons.
"The solution is less guns, not more guns," he said.