Threats, Switches Mark Wisconsin Gunfight
By Steven Walters, Special to Stateline
In a political high drama that included intense lobbying and even some threatening emails, the Wisconsin Legislature fell one vote short this week of legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons.
And, in a made-in-Hollywood ending, the vote that killed the bill was cast by a co-sponsor of it, an National Rifle Association member who wrote op-ed pieces defending the right to carry and who owns four long guns, including two Chinese rifles.
The 65-34 Assembly tally - one vote short of the margin needed to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle blocked a move to make Wisconsin the 47th state to legalize concealed weapons. Five Democrats had deserted Doyle and joined 18 Republicans in a state Senate vote to override the governor a few days earlier.
Emotions ran so high before the final vote that one first-term Democrat, Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, got an e-mail saying her vote for concealed weapons would increase the odds that she would be "assassinated." Shaken by what she said was the most draining issue she's faced, Vruwink turned the e-mail over to the police.
Another Democratic legislator, Sen. Bob Jauch, who also comes from northern Wisconsin, got an e-mail saying he was a "marked man" for his vote against concealed weapons. Although another Democrat called that a "death threat," Jauch said he didn't take it that way, although he said the writer did upset his wife greatly.
Republicans said law-abiding citizens need the right to carry handguns, stun guns, billy clubs or knives to defend themselves, family members or their property.
Doyle, legislators from urban areas and police officers, including state troopers who got special permission to wear their uniforms and guns to lobby against the bill on their days off, said Wisconsin already has one of the lowest crime rates nationally.
The opponents said requiring county sheriffs to issue handgun permits to citizens who complete a training course and clear a criminal background check was unworkable and dangerous.
In the veto showdown, all 77 Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature voted for the bill, a top priority for the NRA, while only 11 of the 55 Democrats did so.
"The legislative leadership had really totally been taken over by the NRA on this one," Doyle said. "The NRA was even scheduling the time for votes on this measure. It really was a great example where special interests were just trying to roll over the will of the people here - and on a very important issue."
Doyle's mention of the will of the people was a reference to a University of Wisconsin Badger Poll last fall that said 69 percent of state residents opposed the concealed-carry bill.
"Can you imagine on a public safety issue when you have every law enforcement association in the state of Wisconsin opposing the bill, the legislature saying to them we're not going to listen to you on this issue?" Doyle said, "To me that's why we have a governor, that's why we have the veto."
Democratic Rep. Gary Sherman, a National Rifle Association member who voted for the bill just three months ago and was a co-sponsor, cast the deciding vote to sustain Doyle's veto.
He said the override push was about embarrassing the governor, the first Democrat to hold Wisconsin's top job since 1986.
Sherman, a barrel-chested lawyer from a region of northern Wisconsin that depends on hunting, fishing, snowmobiles, all-terrain-vehicles and tourists to anchor its economy, noted that Republican legislators never pushed the bill on the watch of their popular ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson, for example.
Sherman also accused Republicans of failing to compromise, noting that Democrats like him offered 69 amendments to the NRA-drafted bill, and got only one passed.
Republicans answered that they "watered down" the bill to make it acceptable to more Democrats,and lost for doing so.
Republicans and NRA lobbyist Darren LaSorte, sent from the group's Washington headquarters to shepherd the bill, were stunned at Sherman's vote. In the NRA's long march through capitols, never has a co-sponsor of a concealed carry law been the one to kill it, LaSorte said.
Sherman, who had refused to say in advance how he would vote, conceded his re-election bid could be a nightmare. If his constituents want to throw him out over one vote, he conceded, "They have a right to make that choice."
That is unlikely, however. Sherman was unopposed in 2002, is admired as stubbornly independent and comes from what may the most Democatic region of the state, one local party loyalist said.
But Republicans immediately took aim at building a veto-proof majority in both houses in November elections, and bringing back an even tougher bill next session.
"Some seats are going to have to change," the NRA's LaSorte said. He added that Sherman "is certainly going to be in the sights of his constituents" for choosing "politics over principle."
The closeness of the vote reflected how Doyle, who was elected governor after 12 years as attorney general and never served in the legislature, has not worked with legislators on major issues.
Republicans think they can set up Doyle, whose popularity ratings have been under 50 percent in some statewide polls, for defeat in 2006. For his part, Doyle says Republicans don't want to get serious about creating and protecting jobs, or controlling health-care costs, but want instead to lay bills on his desk they know he won't sign.
Steven Walters is Madison statehouse bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Also contributing to this report was Doug Cunningham of the Wisconsin Radio Network.