The national, student-led debate on guns prompted by the Florida school shooting massacre took hold in Madison on Tuesday as local teenagers implored the Legislature to pass gun control measures hours before the Assembly held a contentious, impromptu debate on background checks before joining the Senate in passing bills to strengthen the ban on so-called “straw” purchases of guns.
The Assembly version also included grants for school safety officers, leaving it to the Senate to pass the bill again before it can go to Gov. Scott Walker.
“Why aren’t we being protected?” Lydia Hester, a sophomore at Madison East High School, said at a Capitol press conference before the votes. “We have been fed up for years but the Florida shooting was the last straw. We need stronger laws to protect us.”
Earlier Tuesday Madison mayor Paul Soglin, seeking the Democratic nod for governor, expressed frustration that the Legislature has prevented cities like his from enacting their own gun control measures while Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel said the state should consider letting teachers be armed.
The debate in the capital city over guns was capped by a more than four-hour discussion in the Assembly on a Democratic proposal to require background checks for all gun purchases. Republicans rejected that proposal on a party-line vote, and instead offered a proposal that would provide grants for armed school security officers and strengthen a ban on purchases of firearms through a straw buyer, which passed 71-24.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, who put forward the grant proposal, said he doesn’t know how much the grants would cost because it’s unclear how many schools would apply for the grants.
The votes came after a dizzying series of procedural motions in which Democrats brought the gun bill to the floor without it being on the official agenda and Republicans responded by trying to replace the background check language with other gun-related measures. At one point Republicans refused to take a break so that Democrats could review the GOP proposal.
“Everybody knows that you’re avoiding a vote on background checks,” said Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison. “You’re acting like blockheads and it’s not working to your advantage. … You are in a rut because the country is changing, the ground is shifting and you are on the wrong side of history.”
Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, responded by saying “this deplorable blockhead believes in background checks,” but she added that she objected to a bill being pulled to the Assembly floor without first being vetted in committee.
“We on this side of the aisle care about our children and grandchildren and we want to be thoughtful in the process of addressing the murderers that walk into our school and kill our kids,” Bernier said. “I’m not going to sit back and listen to the BS.”
The Senate bill strengthening the ban on straw purchases passed unanimously. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said she offered the bill at the urging of Milwaukee city officials who want to clamp down on straw purchases in their city that help criminals gain access to guns.
Separately, Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, made a plea for senators to “do something” in response to recent school shootings and proposed allowing schools to raise revenue limits to pay for school security upgrades. There was no vote on the measure. Shilling’s parents were shot to death during a 1993 robbery.
Madison high school students engaged
Before the debate began, a group of Madison high school students spoke at an Assembly Democratic caucus press conference and called on the Legislature to pass three Democratic gun control bills.
The bills would institute universal background checks on gun purchases, prohibit individuals convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from possessing a firearm, and prohibit bump stocks, which a gunman in Las Vegas last year used on his weapon to accelerate firing, leaving 58 people dead.
Last week, former student Nikolas Cruz, 19, used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was the nation’s deadliest school attack since a gunman assaulted an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, more than five years ago, killing 26, including 20 children.
The Madison students are organizing a student walkout and march to the Capitol on March 14 as part of a national day of action.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said there have been several bills put forward by Democrats over the years, but there hasn’t been a public hearing on any of them.
“It just simply hasn’t been a priority,” Hintz said. “We’ve reached the point where enough is enough. … The silence has been deafening for too long.”
At a separate press conference, Soglin said mayors nationally will be seeking action on gun safety but what’s different now is students motivated after the Florida killings — including local students — will be taking the lead.
“We are going to be followers,” Soglin said. “They are going to lead the discussion and they’re going to test our values as a state and a nation.”
Earlier in the day, Schimel told WTMJ the state should consider allowing schools to decide whether to allow classroom teachers to be armed.
The Madison high school students disagreed, saying they would rather address the root cause of the shooting.
“By allowing guns in schools you are taking the focus off of prevention,” said Annabel Stattelman, a Madison East High School junior. “We need to be looking at the causes of these problems and not just try to minimize the impacts and the effects.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also said he was open to a discussion about allowing school districts to arm teachers.
“If a local school district decides that they would like to have the ability to train a teacher or a security guard or folks to be able to defend themselves if something bad happens, I’m open to talking about that,” Vos said.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to have a bill, it doesn’t mean there’s something proposed,” Vos said. “But I am not going to have the same knee-jerk reaction Democrats do, which is to try to shut everything down and make everything political and turn it into some kind of us versus them. That’s not what Wisconsin wants.”
Soglin voiced frustration that the Legislature has pre-empted Madison laws on gun control. “We cannot do anything about it,” he said.
A governor, the mayor said, should support strengthening state gun safety laws and “giving local authorities the independence to enact tougher laws if so inclined.” He also mentioned a possible federal tax on weapons and ammunition that could produce revenue to fund police officers in schools.
Last Friday, County Executive Joe Parisi held a press conference to urge Walker and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, to pass gun regulations and to announce a petition on the county’s website where residents can sign their name to support action.
The online petition asks Walker to call a special session of the state Legislature and Ryan to convene Congress to pass “common sense reforms,” including mandatory universal background checks, an assault weapon ban, banning bump stocks and keeping people who are subject to domestic violence protection orders from having guns.