MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans who control the state Legislature were expected to dodge the Democratic governor’s call to pass a pair of gun control bills during a special session Thursday, even as advocates increased the pressure on them by holding a rally and flooding the galleries.
Republicans have said they will convene the special session in the Senate and Assembly, then immediately adjourn without taking action on bills mandating universal background checks and allowing judges to temporarily seize guns from people who pose a threat.
Citing polls showing broad support for both ideas, Gov. Tony Evers said they will face blowback from voters at the next election.
“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 as elected officials,” Evers wrote in a letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Thursday morning before the session began.
Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said Republicans should vote or risk losing power as in an election this week in Virginia, where gun violence was a major campaign issue.
“Failing to act on basic public safety measures is accepting there is nothing we can do to make our communities safer,” Hintz said. “We cannot sit back and do nothing. We have a responsibility to act. … The issue’s not going away. We shouldn’t have to wait for the next mass shooting to get more attention on it.”
Gun control advocates including Moms Demand Action, Doctors for America and the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee rallied at the Capitol.
“We go to school every day wondering if we will be next,” Karly Scholz, a junior at Madison West High School and the director of the Wisconsin chapter of March for Our Lives, said before the rally. March for Our Lives is an anti-gun group that formed after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“When lawmakers say they won’t even debate this issue, I’m being told that my life doesn’t matter, that my safety doesn’t matter,” Scholz said. “When the young people you refuse to protect turn 18, we will vote you out.”
Assembly Democrats planned to force debate on gun issues during discussion on a bill Republicans support that’s up for a vote related to reducing suicide. They argue that a red flag law, that would allow family members and police to ask a judge to seize firearms from people who pose a threat, does more to curb suicides than other measures the Assembly is debating.
The Senate, which is not meeting in regular session Thursday, planned to gavel in and out with no action. But Fitzgerald refused to say when exactly that would be done, forcing Democrats and advocates to wait for action in the chamber.
Fitzgerald has said it makes no sense to debate bills that won’t pass without Republican support. He and Vos insist the bills infringe on Second Amendment gun rights.
Vos said he opposed the red flag law because it would allow for confiscation of weapons if there’s a suspicion someone may do something wrong.
“Even when you yell fire in a crowded theater, it happens first and you’re prosecuted after,” Vos said. “I don’t understand those who would want to take away our constitutional rights on an idea or a threat.” He said a Republican-sponsored bill that would make grants available to gun shop owners to store guns from people who voluntarily give them up is less invasive than the red flag proposal.
Rep. Joan Ballweg, a Republican from Markesan who backs the bills designed to reduce suicides in Wisconsin, said the red flag law wouldn’t address the problem as efficiently.
Seventeen states have passed red flag laws. Twenty-one states have similar universal background check laws.
Despite all the warnings that Republicans will pay at the ballot box for ignoring the special session call, it’s unlikely they’ll suffer much damage in 2020. The GOP redrew legislative district lines in 2011 to consolidate its support, leaving only a handful of truly competitive seats.
As a result, Republican incumbents are less concerned about Democrats than they are about primary opponents who might appear more conservative than them. Gun rights are a basic plank in the Republican platform; any show of support for the special session bills or Evers would almost certainly invite such a challenge.
Evers almost certainly understands these dynamics but calling a special session on guns is still important to his base and gives him a chance to remind voters where each party stands.