Wisconsin Democrats Call for Universal Background Checks

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin Democrats threw down the gauntlet over gun control Thursday, introducing a bill that would require universal background checks for nearly all firearm sales and calling on state Republicans to act in kind.

Handguns are displayed at the NRA’s 2018 convention in Dallas. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

The bill’s introduction in a statement from Governor Tony Evers’ office Thursday morning comes less than a day after a shooting in Philadelphia injured six police officers, and less than two weeks after back-to-back mass shootings only 13 hours apart at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and an entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead and dozens more injured.

Penned by Senator LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee and Representative Melissa Sargent of Madison, the bill would require background checks for any sale or transfer of firearms, with the exception of a sale or transfer to a firearms dealer, law enforcement, or a member of the armed services.

The bill would not apply to the sale or transfer of guns that are considered antiques, or to a transfer “that is by gift, bequest, or inheritance to a family member.”

Violating the prohibition would be a misdemeanor and anyone caught doing so could face up to $10,000 in fines and a prison term up to nine months, and would be banned from possessing a firearm for two years.

In his statement Thursday, Evers said the state and the country have to stop ignoring the issue of gun violence, calling it “time for our elected officials to find the courage to do what is right.”

“Addressing gun violence doesn’t have to be a false choice between the Second Amendment and keeping our kids and our communities safe,” the governor said, adding that “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes drew on personal experience, disclosing that “growing up, I lost classmates and friends to gun violence, while experiencing the pain and grief it brings to entire neighborhoods.”

Barnes, who grew up in Milwaukee, said that only by ensuring background checks can Wisconsin have “communities where every woman, man, and child have a chance to thrive.”

Senator Johnson called the bill a “common-sense start to a needed conversation” and stated that 90% of Americans support background checks for all gun sales.Representative Sargent agreed, calling the many firearms sales conducted without background checks an “egregious loophole in our laws” that she hopes the bill will close.

Attorney General Josh Kaul weighed on this loophole in the same release, stating that while the majority of gun purchases in the Badger State require background checks, the current system allows dangerous individuals, “including people who have been convicted of a dangerous felony or are subject to a domestic violence restraining order,” to buy a gun without being subject to a background check.

Current Wisconsin law only requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, so part of what the legislation would do is make all gun sales and transfers, in essence, move through licensed gun dealers and unify the background check process under the state Department of Justice.

Evers did not call for a special session of the state legislature to address the bill Thursday, but that may be in store given his indication that he would be open to that tack, in conjunction with the relative silence from the state GOP on the matter.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, the two most powerful Republicans in the Legislature, have long expressed skepticism over policy proposals like universal background checks and red-flag laws. Neither could be reached for comment Thursday morning.

However, in response to a reporter’s question at an event in Madison on Tuesday, Fitzgerald said Wisconsin already has what qualifies as a red-flag law that was passed during the 1995-1996 session under Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. Fitzgerald reiterated he does not support the kinds of measures Thursday’s bill would implement and that he does not believe his constituents would either.

“A personal sale between either family members or friends, which happens all the time, if you’d have to go to the state or to the federal government and have to register that firearm, people are not going to go for that,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday.

In the aftermath of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the national debate over gun control had a local angle recently as well. Last week marked seven years since a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, a suburb just south of Milwaukee. Seven people were killed, including the shooter, Wade Michael Page, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head during a firefight with police.

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