MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats tried to pressure Republicans into passing universal background checks for gun buyers Tuesday but GOP leaders outmaneuvered them, seizing control of the legislation and rewriting it to fund armed guards in schools.
The move capped a day of furious debate over gun control in the state Capitol in the wake of a mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead.
Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel began the day by telling WTMJ-AM radio he would be open to letting teachers and others go armed in schools.
"Law-abiding gun owners don't go and shoot up schools," Schimel said. "When you make a school a gun-free school zone, the only person you're stopping is the law-abiding gun owner who doesn't want to get in trouble."
Democrats, meanwhile, held a morning news conference demanding the GOP pass Democratic measures that would institute universal background checks, prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from buying guns and ban bump stock sales.
Students from all of Madison's high schools appeared alongside the Democrats and demanded action.
"The incompetence of legislators who are bought out by the (National Rifle Association) has barred us from change that is long overdue," Madison East High School junior Anne Motoviloff said.
Republicans control both houses of the Legislature. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos dismissed the Democrats' demands as a "sad, cynical" political stunt to capture headlines. He said none of the bills have broad support in the Assembly and Democrats have never tried to talk to him about the proposals.
Minutes after the Assembly convened Tuesday afternoon, Democrats made a motion to place the universal background check proposal on the day's agenda. In a surprise move, Republicans voted to take up the bill.
They then immediately amended it to wipe out the background checks. They added language that would create a state grant program to fund armed guards in schools. The NRA has suggested placing armed guards in every American school.
Under the Wisconsin bill, the guards would have to be police officers or former police officers. A number of schools in the state already have police liaison officers.
The GOP added other language to the bill that would make buying a gun for someone who can't legally possess one a felony punishable by up to a decade in prison — right now it's a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in jail — and create a mandatory four-year prison sentence for repeat gun violators. The mandatory sentence would end in mid-2022, when the state Justice Department would produce a report reviewing the sentence's effectiveness.
Democrats howled that Republicans had hijacked their bill, saying armed guards can't prevent school shootings and Republicans would take stronger action if people were dying from measles. They tried to amend the bill to restore background checks, bringing the chamber to a halt for hours as Republicans tried to decide how to handle the amendment. Republicans eventually defeated the amendment 60-35.
"This is a real, real public health crisis our state is facing," Rep. Melissa Sargent, a Madison Democrat, said. "We need to address it as such."
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, an Oconomowoc Republican, said celebrities and politicians use armed guards.
"Why don't we insist our children are protected with the same fervor?" Kleefisch said. "I'm flabbergasted at the disingenuousness of our colleagues' challenges to this real measure."
In the end, the bill passed 71-24 with nine Democrats voting for it. Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz insisted that he put Republicans right where he wanted them by forcing them to vote against background checks, a stance that will help Democrats on the campaign trail.
The measure now goes to the state Senate, which passed its own bill Tuesday that would make buying a gun for someone who can't legally possess one a felony punishable by six years in prison. That bill now goes to the Assembly.