Assembly GOP proposes more background checks for rifles and shotguns as part of $100 million Wisconsin school safety plan

By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - Assembly Republicans Thursday proposed applying a Wisconsin background check system for certain handgun sales to similar purchases of rifles and shotguns.

The Assembly is considering the background check measure as the house votes on a $100 million school safety plan and other major parts of Gov. Scott Walker's re-election agenda.

Currently, there are federal background checks on gun purchases made from federally licensed dealers and state checks on handgun sales at those same dealers, Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) said.

The federal government is in the process of improving its background check system but in the meantime Felzkowski said it's worth running the state checks on all gun purchases to make sure the federal checks aren't missing prohibited buyers.

"We are doing this to prevent criminals from getting guns," she said.

Also Thursday, the Assembly approved, 59-31, a $100 per child tax rebate and a sales tax holiday for back to school shoppers. The Assembly also unanimously passed a broad overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system that will close the troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys.

Both bills now go to Walker for his signature.

The state background checks do not apply now and would not apply in the future to gun sales made by non-licensed private sellers, including certain gun show sales and some sales set up through internet sites similar to Craigslist. That left Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) saying that Republicans had put out a "fake bill" that doesn't go far enough.

"There'll not be a single new background check on anybody," Hintz said.

Problems have been pointed out with the National Instant Check System for firearms purchases, including a Nov. 5 incident in which a gunman killed 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with a rifle he shouldn't have been allowed to buy. Congress this week is considering changes to improve that federal system.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said that the Wisconsin bill was meant to be a bridge until the federal system is improved.

The Marquette University Law School poll found this month that 81% of state voters support expanded background checks and 78% of those in gun-owning households also favored them. A June 2016 Marquette poll had similar findings.

Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg would not say if the governor supported the Assembly background check plan. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) also gave no guarantee his house would take up the legislation.

"I'm going to come in tomorrow and assess what they do," he said off the Assembly.

There may be little incentive for GOP senators to return to Madison.

Senators held what was to be their last session day of the year on Tuesday. The Assembly plans to pass a bill already approved by the Senate that includes the heart of Walker's plan — the $100 million in one-time funding for school safety.

The background checks are being added to a bill that includes protections against bullying that GOP senators have already rejected. If the Senate does nothing, the bulk of Walker's plan will land on the governor's desk while the expanded background checks will not.

Students and Democrats have criticized Walker's school safety plan for not including any gun-control measures when the nation is wrestling with school shootings, including one last month in Parkland, Fla. that claimed 17 lives. Last week, 3,000 high school students descended on the state Capitol to demand banning bump stocks, raising the age for purchasing AR-15-style rifles and requiring background checks for purchasing firearms.

In addition to the funding for building safety and staff training, Assembly Bill 843 would also require schools to improve their safety plans and require teachers and other officials to report threats of school violence. The Senate approved the bill 28-4 on Tuesday.

On the school safety grants, Democrats have questioned giving GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel the authority to hand them out since he supports allowing local school districts and teachers decide whether teachers can be armed.

Schimel spokesman Johnny Koremenos said that the Department of Justice would not consider a district's stance on armed teachers when awarding the grants. The Justice Department also would not use that money to help a district arm teachers though it would provide training using other resources, he said.

"If the law was changed and a district allowed teachers to carry, that decision would not affect DOJ’s decision on awarding grants," Koremenos said. "Separate from the school safety grants, DOJ would provide free training to teachers who decide to carry."

The Assembly also approved Senate Bill 798, which would provide Wisconsin residents with a $100 per-child tax rebate this summer and give them a one-weekend break on sales taxes in August. The one-time tax breaks — which taxpayers would receive just months before Walker stands for re-election — would cost $134 million.

The bill passed the Senate 17-15 on Tuesday.

Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) argued that giving the money to state universities would do more for Wisconsin's economy.

"You're handing out $100 checks to voters right before the election. How shameful!" Shankland said.

But Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) said that parents would make better use of the money than the state government.

"One hundred dollars going to families who can seriously appreciate it ... is something we can celebrate," Zimmerman said.

Also Thursday, the Assembly voted 90-0 to shutter Lincoln Hills, the state's widely criticized teen prison complex, by 2021 and replace it with smaller, regional facilities around the state.

Closing that facility took on renewed momentum this week after the Walker administration agreed to pay $18.9 million to a former inmate who was severely brain damaged after staff failed to respond to her request for help and she hanged herself.

The prison complex north of Wausau has been the subject of a criminal investigation into child neglect and prisoner abuse for three years.

It has also been hit with a string of lawsuits, including the one brought by Sydni Briggs of Janesville that was settled Tuesday for nearly $19 million.

Briggs was 16 when she was held at Copper Lake in 2015 and told staff she was thinking of suicide.

She turned on a call light that guards were supposed to respond to immediately, but no one came to her door for nearly 24 minutes. By then she had hanged herself, had no pulse and was not breathing. She is now 19, uses a wheelchair, has the cognition of a young child and is expected to need costly care around the clock for the rest of her life.

At least four other civil rights lawsuits brought by former inmates are pending. A fifth lawsuit brought by current inmates resulted in an injunction last year forcing the state to curb its use of pepper spray and solitary confinement.

The Assembly passed the measure last month, but the Senate tweaked aspects of it Tuesday, requiring the Assembly to take it up again.