Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican with an A rating from the National Rifle Association for his long history of supporting pro-gun measures, is shifting his approach following the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school and as he seeks re-election in November.
Walker, who is running for a third term in November, reacted to past school shootings by remaining open to the possibility of arming teachers while emphasizing the need to bolster mental health treatment and rejecting calls for stricter gun control.
But two weeks after the Florida school shooting that left 17 dead, Walker has come out against arming teachers. Instead, he said he’s working with lawmakers on a package of school safety bills for them to take up this spring. Walker did not say what specifically he would propose, but he said it ought to be similar to measures put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks that increased safety in airports.
That differs from his position after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 26 dead. Walker said then that arming teachers should be considered, but that the emphasis should be on increasing mental health services. He also refused to endorse any bills that would limit the types of weapons or ammunition that could be sold.
Walker, governor since 2011, has a long history of signing pro-gun bills backed by the NRA into law. That includes legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons, instituting the “castle doctrine,” which gave homeowners more legal protections if they shoot an intruder, and repealing a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases.
As a member of the Assembly in the 1990s, Walker sponsored a bill to legalize concealed carry and voted for a bill that pre-empted local governments from enacting tougher gun control measures than state law allowed.
Since 2010, Walker has received $3.5 million from the NRA, the most of any Wisconsin office holder, based on a tally by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political donations. The NRA has endorsed him in his previous elections and has given him an A rating.
Walker downplayed that NRA support when asked about it Wednesday, saying the only special interests he cares about are the people of the state.
But his critics aren’t buying that Walker’s position on guns has softened in any meaningful way.
“To know where Governor Walker will end up, you need to follow the money and look at what he’s done, not what he’s saying today,” said Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
Walker opponents say his shift on guns fits with his history of taking more moderate positions before elections and then returning to more conservative stances after he wins.
For example, in 2014 Walker said he had no interest in a right-to-work law, but after he won re-election, it was the first bill he signed into law. He also ran a television ad in that race saying he trusted women with their health care decisions, but in July 2015 signed a 20-week abortion ban into law.
“There is no one who watches public opinion more closely or is more prepared to pander on the issue of the day than election year Scott Walker,” Ross said.
Democratic lawmakers argue that now is the time for Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature to consider proposals that polls show have broad support, including universal background checks for gun purchases.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz. “While it is encouraging Governor Walker has finally acknowledged the national conversation on the epidemic of gun violence in our country, this needs to be a comprehensive, bipartisan effort.”
Other measures Democrats want include bans on the sale of assault weapons and bump stocks, which allow guns to rapidly fire and were used in last year’s Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people and injured 851, and on allowing domestic abusers to own guns. They also want schools to be allowed to exceed revenue limits to spend more on security.