‘Beyond disturbing:’ Mayor Barrett veers into national gun debate during State of the City speech

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett veered into a national debate on gun control during his State of the City speech on Monday, Feb. 26.

Barrett called for mandatory background checks on all gun sales, a ban on assault weapons, and slammed Republicans who support allowing teachers to carry guns in schools. He appeared to take a dig at House Speaker Paul Ryan for the speaker's comments immediately after a mass shooting at a Florida high school on Valentine's Day.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

"After yet another mass shooting, when someone dismissively says 'now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions,' I get angry," Barrett told a crowd of several hundred at the new Northwestern Mutual building downtown.

During a Feb. 15 radio interview, Ryan said policymakers "don't just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data."

Barrett said it was "beyond disturbing" how Republicans in control of government were handling the Florida shooting.

"I am angered that the (National Rifle Association), our president and those afraid of losing NRA money want teachers to carry loaded firearms in classrooms. Talk about a knee-jerk reaction," Barrett said.

President Donald Trump has endorsed allowing teachers to carry guns. Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel and U.S. Senate hopeful Leah Vukmir have expressed an openness to allowing school districts to make the decision.

Barrett said the gun issue affected Milwaukee because of the 119 homicides in the city in 2017, which the mayor referred to as "slow-motion mass murders." He said Milwaukee police seized 2,759 guns last year.

Lead poisoning

Barrett did not use his platform Monday morning to apologize to those affected by mistakes in the troubled Milwaukee Health Department. City officials do not know if they properly notified thousands of families whose children tested high for lead, discovered that they didn't do necessary investigations, and uncovered an order that discouraged Milwaukee Health Department staffers from going to elected officials to blow the whistle.

Bevan Baker

Former Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned in January, and has recently denied wrongdoing.

Barrett announced plans to spend $2.5 million from the sale of water to the City of Waukesha on the replacement of lead lateral pipes.

"We’ve made tremendous progress. Have there been some bumps in the road in the health department? Absolutely, yes. Did we cover those up? Absolutely not. We immediately brought them to the public’s attention, and we have a plan in place to move forward," Barrett told reporters when asked why he didn't address the errors in detail.

Kirsten Shead

Kirsten Shead of the Milwaukee Water Commons saw the speech in person. Afterward, she said the mayor's tone left her concerned.

"My concern is that it makes it seem like we’ve solved the problem," Shead said. "I still don’t think the community has gotten a clear message from the city stating what the problem is, how serious it is, and how best to protect themselves."

Shead called on Barrett and the Common Council -- who have clashed about who should lead the Milwaukee Health Department -- to develop a clear, unified message about how to move the city forward.

There are an estimated 70,000 lead laterals in Milwaukee, and replacing all of them would require several hundred million dollars.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Mayor, council disagreements

Council President Ashanti Hamilton attended the speech and raised concerns with three of the mayor's initiatives.

Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton

Barrett proposed spending city money to spur development of 10,000 affordable housing units, with a "significant" portion downtown or near the downtown area.

"I think some of the strategies that we’ll put forward with the housing issues cannot just focus on downtown and the surrounding downtown areas," Hamilton told reporters afterward. "We have to have a strategy that’s going to connect the growth of downtown not only to the surrounding areas, but to neighborhoods around this city."

Barrett said he would not turn his back on expanding the Milwaukee Streetcar into neighborhoods, but Hamilton said he preferred to monitor the progress of the initial streetcar route before making decisions about expansion.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett offers State of the City address

The mayor also renewed his call on Gov. Scott Walker and Republican state lawmakers to let Milwaukee ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax dedicated to public safety needs. Hamilton said he preferred not to "pigeon-hole" the city into a single option.

The sales tax referendum proposal went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Legislature last year.