Governor Vetoes Wisconsin Gun Bill
By Doug Cunningham, Special to Stateline
Madison, WI-- A bill allowing gun-owners to pack concealed weapons even into the state Legislature -- has sparked a political shootout in Wisconsin, with Republican proponents blazing away rhetorically at "criminals, druggies and wackos," while Democrats return fire with equal passion.
At one point during debate of the "concealed carry" bill in the Republican-controlled Legislature, where it passed on a largely party-line vote, one Democrat mocked its chief Republican strategist by vowing to show up in the capitol "with three-times the firepower" of his rival.
He concluded sarcastically by barking out the classic schoolboy imitation of tommy-gun fire: "Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!"
Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle put at least a temporary stop to this feuding Tuesday (11/18) with a veto, backed by strong support from Wisconsin's law enforcement community and the public at large. An override attempt by pro-gun forces backed by the National Rifle Association seemed unlikely to succeed.
But that would still give the Republicans more ammunition for their 2004 election-year strategy, one Wisconsin Democrats claim will focus on "guns, God and gays." The Republicans already were targeting Doyle's vetoes of a property tax freeze and a ban on gay marriage.
And in any case, the concealed-weapons clash well illustrates the fierce passions aroused by gunowners'-rights issues and fear of crime even in a normally placid, relatively low-crime state like Wisconsin.
The controversial bill that would let adults 21 and older carry concealed weapons if they complete a firearm safety course, a change that would overturn a 133-year-old ban in the Badger State.
"Wisconsin enacted a law prohibiting concealed weapons in the 1870s, and it's been the law of Wisconsin for 130 years," said Doyle, a former state attorney general. "We're one of the safest states in the country. I stand with law enforcement on this. I don't think we're safer if we're all carrying weapons to the mall."
He appears to be on strong political footing. A University of Wisconsin Badger Poll said 69 percent of state residents opposed the concealed-carry bill. Law enforcement leaders seem united against it, and newspapers statewide have overwhelmingly editorialized against it.
An odd feature of the bill is that it would allow hidden guns even in the Statehouse during legislative debates. Before a last-minute amendment, the bill would also have allowed guns in bars, health facilities and at youth sports events.
It would also allow counties to opt out of issuing gun permits -- and 90 percent of sheriffs statewide say they will push to do just that if this becomes law.
Democrats claim the real point of the bill is to make it as a "wedge issue" for Republicans that will energize the gun lobby vote against Democrats in the coming election year. Republicans backing the bill claim states that allow concealed carry have seen a reduction in crime.
There is some recent history of success for pro-gun forces in Wisconsin. The state's Supreme Court earlier this year upheld the right of property owners to carry concealed guns at businesses and in homes for self-protection, although not on streets or in public places. Republicans and their allies -- chiefly the NRA are expected to bring heavy pressure for an override of any Doyle veto on the legislative follow-up effort. Democrats predicted the Republicans could not muster the necessary two-thirds vote
Even so, the fervor of the contest has been striking.
Republican state Sen. Dave Zien, one of the bill's prime movers, exhorted the faithful with missionary enthusiasm at a state capitol rally in September. "You each, and especially all of us together, are indeed spiritually inspired and divinely guided," Zien said, "There is no doubt about that. The spirit of your ancestors in your blood and genes, in your chromosomes, in your DNA is alive and well. You want to live. And you want to protect your loved ones from the criminals, druggies and wackos of our society."
On the other side, Democratic state Rep. Frank Boyle ridiculed Zien's position mercilessly during debate on the bill.
"I'll guarantee you when Dave Zien walks into this chamber with an automated handgun, I'm gonna have three times the firepower tucked right in here, and I'm going to present it right here every single day!" Boyle shouted, patting his desk. "My weapon of preference, and I know this is illegal, is a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun, and at 30 yards ... I could whack off 40 lethal bullets at one shot."
Boyle continued: "We're not talking about Saturday night pistols ...That's not what Dave Zien and I are going to be packing, folks! We're gonna be packing heavy metal! We're going to be carrying automatic weaponry that can fire 30 or 40 shots without ever lettin' up on the trigger!
"It's going to be ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!"
Doug Cunningham is a state government reporter for the Wisconsin Radio Network.