By Chris W. Cox
NRA-ILA Executive Director
The Wisconsin media are in a panic over something many of us have long seen coming—passage of a state Right-to-Carry law. Some news outlets are treating the law like a sudden and unwelcome intruder, but NRA members in the state know this victory had its beginnings way back in 1998.
That was the year Wisconsin voters approved a state constitutional amendment by a 3-1 margin, making it clear that the people of Wisconsin “have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose.”
But the state still had no law allowing for concealed carry. And it wouldn’t for years, even as the state courts issued a series of rulings holding that some people who were at unusual risk of attack could present a defense to concealed-carry charges based on the constitutional provision.
For example, Milwaukee pizza deliveryman Andres Vegas was charged with illegally carrying a concealed firearm after he was attacked by armed robbers. This was actually the third time Vegas had to fight off an armed robbery, and despite using a gun to defend himself from the first attack, he received only a warning letter. Then he was attacked again and, following the advice in the warning letter, he was unarmed. He was beaten, kicked and assaulted with pepper spray.
The third time, Vegas was prepared and defended himself with a gun. This time, the district attorney filed charges and the NRA came to Vegas’ aid. In a forceful opinion, a county judge dismissed the charges, saying he was “not convinced that there are any reasonable alternatives that would have secured Vegas’ safety.” Still, ordinary Wisconsinites were left guessing; how many times did a person have to be attacked before he or she could rely on the state constitution?
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s statutes were silent on the open carry of handguns. But in 2009, the state attorney general issued an opinion noting that some district attorneys and police officials were mistakenly charging citizens with disorderly conduct, just for wearing handguns in visible holsters. Based in part on the constitutional amendment, the opinion concluded: “The Department [of Justice] believes that mere open carry of a firearm, absent additional facts and circumstances, should not result in a disorderly conduct charge.”
Against this backdrop, pro-gun lawmakers tried to reconcile state law with the state constitution by passing a Right-to-Carry law. And twice they succeeded by two-thirds margins in both houses—only to have the bill vetoed each time by then-Gov. Jim Doyle. Efforts to override the vetoes failed narrowly, only after previous supporters changed their votes to support Gov. Doyle’s vetoes for partisan political reasons.
It was clear that Doyle was the last obstacle to enactment of Right to Carry in Wisconsin. And when Doyle retired in 2010, Wisconsin gun owners returned to the polls to do something about it. The issue was prominent in the election, and the NRA Political Victory Fund ran independent TV and radio ads highlighting it. Gun owners rallied, electing Scott Walker, who took over as governor this year.
The legislature was ready but passage was a bumpy road. NRA and some lawmakers wanted to press for permitless carry, but this proved a step too far for most lawmakers. And it took months for the legislature to hammer out a bill acceptable to both chambers. But on June 24, both the Wisconsin House and Senate gave final approval to one of the nation’s strongest Right-to-Carry bills, by solid bipartisan margins. And in keeping with his campaign promise, Gov. Scott Walker has now signed it into law.
Of course, just as we’ve seen in other states, the Wisconsin media predict mayhem in the streets. They are interviewing business owners who oppose Right to Carry, but are publishing quotes that only underscore the reasons the law was needed.
For example, the owner of an inn told the Wausau Daily Herald, “that’s what we have law enforcement for. If there’s an issue, they’re only a phone call away.” But we all know the saying—when seconds count, the police are only minutes away. This businessman would be wise to listen to the words of Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, who told the Wisconsin Radio Network that he has “nothing to fear about law-abiding citizens carrying a concealed gun.”
Now, Wisconsin has left Illinois as the only state that provides no way for citizens to carry concealed firearms for self-protection outside their homes or places of business. In Wisconsin, the effort to pass Right to Carry took 13 years, multiple statewide votes, dozens of court cases, and countless local votes for legislators supportive of the Second Amendment. Through it all, NRA members stood resolute, focused on the long-term objective and refused to relent.
James W. Porter II, PRESIDENT
Allan Cors, FIRST VICE PRESIDENT
Pete Brownell, SECOND VICE PRESIDENT
Wayne LaPierre, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT
Edward J. Land Jr., SECRETARY
Wilson H. Phillips Jr., TREASURER
Kyle Weaver, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GENERAL OPERATIONS
Christopher W. Cox, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR LEGISLATIVE ACTION