The Assembly and Senate special sessions on gun control legislation that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered to take place Thursday both lasted less than a minute.
Evers called on lawmakers to convene Thursday at 2 p.m. to take up two bills that polls have shown have widespread support among voters. Earlier in the day dozens of gun control advocates rallied at the Capitol and packed into the Assembly and Senate galleries to witness the debate.
But it wasn’t until 8 p.m., after most of the activists had gone home, that Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called the session to order with no other lawmakers in the room. He adjourned the session a few seconds later, avoiding debate or a vote on the gun control measures Democratic lawmakers had been advocating for throughout the day.
“I think if there are bills that would make sense to Republican legislators, that we would call ourselves into regular session or extraordinary session to take those up,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the governor knows the bills that he’s offered are not going to pass the Legislature … As they’ve been presented by the governor, there’s no momentum for them.”
Six hours earlier, Democratic senators gathered on the floor to hold a prayer ceremony, and then held a press conference to urge Republicans to debate gun control legislation.
“They are refusing to come to work,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. “I get it if you disagree with a piece of legislation, I’m all for a little debate and disagreement, but you’ve got to show up for work. You’ve got to show up to defend your position.”
The Assembly also began and quickly closed its special session immediately after finishing its regular session at about 9:30 p.m. Throughout the more than 8-hour regular session, Republicans declined multiple Democratic requests to break into special session, while also debating the merits of the legislation.
Evers called for the special session to vote on bills that would require universal background checks for all firearm purchases in Wisconsin and implement so-called red-flag laws, under which people deemed to be threats by a court must surrender their firearms.
“Let it be clear that what stands in the way of voting on common-sense gun safety issues are Republican politicians and their loyalty to the NRA,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement. “Every day that Republicans ignore this crisis is one more day closer to another tragedy.”
A recent Marquette Law School Poll found 80% of Wisconsinites support expanded background checks — including nearly 70% of gun owners.
“These are not partisan issues, they are common-sense public safety issues. They are issues that are supported by a majority of Democrats, they’re supported by a majority of Republicans, they’re supported by a majority of gun owners,” said Democratic state Attorney General Josh Kaul. “It seems like the only place we can’t find a majority of support for this legislation is in the Wisconsin state Legislature.”
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Fitzgerald questioned the accuracy of the polls.
“Polling is one thing,” he said. “I think if you get into the details, because some of these bills are so technical, you may get a different response.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, reiterated during Thursday’s regular session Republican concerns that red-flag laws would infringe upon due process.
“We already have had these debates, we already know where people stand, I don’t necessarily want to spend a bunch of time playing politics with this,” Vos said.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, pushed for red-flag laws and universal background checks as common-sense measures to prevent gun violence.
“We are better than just inaction on these issues,” Hintz said. “Failing to act on basic public safety measures is accepting that there is nothing that we can do to make our communities safer.”
Evers in a Thursday letter again urged Vos and Fitzgerald to hold a formal vote on the legislation.
“The people of this state expect more from their elected officials and they deserve to know where each of those 132 members stand on these commonsense proposals,” Evers said in the letter. “If you refuse the people of this state a vote on these proposals, you are once again denying the will of the people, circumventing the democratic process, and refusing to do your jobs. It’s time to stop with the partisan games and political power grabs.”
Thursday’s special sessions marked the latest clash between Evers and Republican lawmakers.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 19-14 along party lines to fire Brad Pfaff as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Pfaff had been serving in that role since January after being appointed by Evers.
State Journal reporter Riley Vetterkind contributed to this report.