Government

How Guns on Campus Became a Live Issue in Wisconsin

October 15, 2015

AP Photo, Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King
Two state legislators in Wisconsin have introduced a bill to allow guns in campus buildings. So far, there is no indication that others at the State Capitol (above) will embrace the legislation.
Wisconsin was one of the last states to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. Now it is in the vanguard of the debate about whether allowing guns on college campuses will protect students or put them more at risk of violence. How did the state get there?

Under a 2011 law, citizens with the proper licenses can already carry concealed firearms in public, including onto the campuses of public colleges in Wisconsin. But an exception in that law allows public colleges in the state to ban those weapons from campus buildings, and all do so.

Two state legislators in Wisconsin have introduced a bill to eliminate that exception, arguing that armed students would be able to protect themselves from crime, including the threat of a mass shooting.

"If there's a shooting on the campus, I think you want more guns on the campus — because you want more bullets flying to actually stop whoever it is that has started that shooting," State Rep. Jesse Kremer, a Republican, said in an interview this week on Wisconsin Public Radio. Representative Kremer is a primary sponsor of the bill along with State Sen. Devin LeMahieu, also a Republican. Neither Mr. Kremer nor Mr. LeMahieu responded to requests for comment.

The backlash from administrators, faculty members, and students has been swift. A letter to the lawmakers from the student-body president at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee cites studies linking gun ownership to increased rates of both crime and suicide involving guns.

The research "demonstrates that concealed-carry laws do nothing to create safer campuses, and, if anything, lead to more violence," wrote Mike Sportiello. "Milwaukee doesn't need more dead bodies or guns on the street."

Rep. Jesse Kremer
 
But if the people who live, study, and work on those campuses aren't clamoring to carry concealed weapons, why would two freshman state legislators be so interested in forcing the issue? The events in Wisconsin open a small window into what has become a perennial issue in states across the country.

Back to Virginia Tech

While gun laws have been gradually loosened over the past couple of decades, the issue of guns on college campuses has taken center stage largely since 2007, after a gunman killed 27 students and five faculty members at Virginia Tech. In subsequent years, bills that would allow guns on campuses have become regular fare in statehouses across the country.

All 50 states now have laws allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons, while just nine states allow guns on public-college campuses by statute, according to data from Armed Campuses, a coalition of groups advocating for stricter gun control. At the other end of the spectrum, nine states completely bar guns from public campuses. (A bill recently enacted in California will add that state to the list.)

But every year there are more attempts to loosen the laws banning guns on campuses. In 2013 bills allowing concealed carry were introduced in at least 19 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2014 such bills were proposed in at least 14 states. In addition to the bill in Wisconsin, legislation under consideration in Michigan would allow concealed carry nearly everywhere without restriction, including on campuses and in college buildings, and a Tennessee lawmaker says he may write a bill allowing faculty and staff members to carry weapons in public-college buildings, according to a report from the Associated Press.

'If there's a shooting on the campus, I think you want more guns on the campus -- because you want more bullets flying to actually stop whoever it is that has started that shooting.'
 
The bills are part of a nationwide effort by gun-rights groups not only to stave off new laws meant to prevent gun violence, but also to weaken and abolish existing laws, said Andy Pelosi, executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, a nonprofit group that opposes loosening gun restrictions.

Safe Seats, for Now

In Wisconsin the introduction of the bill allowing guns in campus buildings represents another step in the evolution of the state's politics, says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause. In the past, gun control was less a partisan issue than one that divided rural and urban lawmakers.

"It used to be, you might have rural Democratic legislators who were more pro-Second Amendment and suburban Republicans who might have been more sympathetic to some restrictions on handguns than their rural counterparts," he said.


But by 2011, after Republicans had gained control of both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature as well as the governor's seat, the party had shifted to the right. Republican lawmakers became more uniform in their positions generally and, in particular, more strident in their opposition to gun control, Mr. Heck said.

At that point, he said, the issue of gun control became strictly partisan. And Representative Kremer and Senator LeMahieu, who were both elected in 2014, fit the mold perfectly, Mr. Heck said: They come from extremely conservative districts and tout conservative credentials on key issues such as opposition to abortion and support of an individual right to bear arms.

Sen. Devin LeMahieu

Within that context, pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association have found a "willing set of lawmakers" in the statehouse, he said.

What keeps legislators loyal to the gun-rights lobby over the long term is fear of their voter-turnout efforts, said Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort. Opponents of gun control "have been able to convince lawmakers that they'll pay a price during elections and that the National Rifle Association will turn out their voters and vote against them in primaries," she said.

So far, there is no indication that the campus-carry legislation will be widely embraced by other lawmakers or Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. A spokeswoman for the State Senate's majority leader, Scott L. Fitzgerald, said he had "not taken a position" on the bill and was waiting to see the response when the Republican caucus meets next week.

Ms. Bonavia said the gun-rights groups' ability to sway elections is overstated — "more bark than bite." But she is also concerned that individuals who oppose the bill will not be heard in Madison.

"There really is not a strong lobbying presence," she said, "to counterbalance what the NRA can do in that realm."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.