MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature quickly shut down a special floor session meant to debate gun reform Thursday night, fulfilling a promise made almost immediately after the session was called by Democratic Governor Tony Evers last month via executive order.
Evers called the special session to force the Legislature to take up two gun reform bills introduced by Democrats over the summer. The first bill calls for universal background checks for nearly all firearm sales and the second would implement a red-flag law to take guns away from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others, which would have required a petition filed by family or law enforcement and granted by a judge.
While Evers’ executive order required the Legislature to meet, it did not have the power to make it actively debate the bills. The result was two sessions promptly gaveled in and out in the Assembly and Senate by the GOP majority in less than a minute.
Evers said Thursday night that the Legislature’s decision not to debate gun control amounted to telling “80% of Wisconsinites and a majority of gun owners ‘go jump in a lake.’”
His comment referred to a recent Marquette University Law School poll which found that 80% of those polled support expanding background checks and 81% support red-flag laws.
The Marquette poll was referenced several times by Democrats throughout the almost eight-hour regular session which preceded the special session in the Assembly, beginning around 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Evers’ executive order called for the special session to begin at 2 p.m.
As soon as the regular session began, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D- Oshkosh, admonished Republican legislators to take seriously the opportunity to pass gun reform and that “the decision not to would be a mistake.”
Hintz’s comment drew applause from spectators in the gallery, prompting Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August, R- Lake Geneva, to issue a warning for those in the gallery not to interrupt the session.
Referencing two back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio this summer that left 31 dead, Hintz said of the bills that “if you are not willing take these up today, I think you’ll have to do better in your excuses as to why not.”
The regular session then addressed GOP legislators’ attempts to override three of Evers’ budget vetoes from this year. Republicans especially took issue with a veto that redirected $15 million from a proposed mental health crisis center in northern Wisconsin to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison.
GOP legislators ultimately failed to secure a two-thirds majority vote to override all three vetoes, which also involved state health care programs and funds for treatment services.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, took Democrats to task for “playing politics.”
He addressed the fact that only two Democrats had to vote with Republicans to override the vetoes, declaring that “only two of you had to have courage” to break with their party “but instead you indicated that you don’t work for the people of the state, you work for the governor.”
Hintz countered that the lengthy discussion of the budget vetoes was a distraction to delay the vote on the gun reform bills.
Over the course of the evening’s debate over packages of bills ranging from family planning care to suicide prevention, multiple Democrats, including Representatives Dianne Hesselbein, D- Middleton, and David Crowley, D- Milwaukee, asked August if he planned to get to the special session called by the governor.
Each time, August answered with a variation of “it is my intention to conclude the regular session.”
Representative Melissa Sargent, D- Madison, who co-authored both gun reform bills that spurred the special session, pointed out the intersection between suicide prevention and gun control measures. Representative Chris Taylor, D-Madison, echoed the point, asking, “How can you have a suicide prevention task force and not address gun violence?” Both legislators brought up the influence of the National Rifle Association as quieting debate on gun control.
The Assembly passed the suicide prevention package with near-unanimous support, which included a provision to give gun shops up to $5,000 to make storage space for people who want to store guns safely while they or a family member are experiencing mental health issues.
Vos applauded the passage of the suicide prevention bills in a release, saying he was proud of the bipartisan task force that spearheaded them.
“We’re setting an example that a great deal can be accomplished when you put politics aside,” he said.
But the Assembly then quickly convened and adjourned the special session in seconds. The Senate’s session also came and went without circumstance. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, stood alone in the senate chamber, read from a script, gaveled the session in as required by law and promptly ended it in a so-called skeletal session.
The lack of debate or vote drew the ire of Democratic senators.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D- La Crosse, blasted Republicans’ inaction on gun control, despite the fact that “for the first time in eight years, we have a governor and an attorney general who are offering more than thoughts and prayers to end gun violence and support victims and their families.”
Senator LaTonya Johnson, D- Milwaukee, who co-authored the background checks bill, also expressed disappointment in a statement Thursday.
“I know that criminal background checks are the foundation of any effort to reduce gun violence….yet, despite overwhelming public support, Republicans are refusing to take any action,” she said.
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