MADISON — Gun advocates urged a state Senate committee Wednesday to approve a Republican bill allowing people to carry concealed weapons without permits or training, saying the measure would restore Wisconsin residents' constitutional right to arm themselves.
Sen. Dave Craig and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, the bill's authors, kicked off a public hearing on the measure before the Senate judiciary committee by telling members that permit and training requirements restrict rights. They noted people already can legally carry guns openly in Wisconsin without any permits, training or regulations.
"Why should our citizens enjoy any less rights when you already have a standard to carry openly without a permit?" Craig said.
That stance piqued Sen. Lena Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat. She said she voted for legislation to allow concealed carry in Wisconsin in 2011 but that some restrictions are appropriate.
"Limits are necessary. Training is one of those, for me, lines in the sand," Taylor said. "I'm challenged by the concept that you think constitutional rights come unfettered."
Current state law requires anyone who carries a concealed weapon to obtain a permit and get training. The state Department of Justice says 328,820 people currently hold a valid permit in Wisconsin.
The measure would create a new permit for carrying concealed weapons on school grounds unless the school has prohibited the practice. That permit would require a background check to satisfy U.S. law governing carrying in school zones, but applicants wouldn't need training.
Anyone who brings a gun into a school or onto its grounds without a permit would face trespass charges punishable by $1,000 in forfeitures. Right now someone who goes armed into a school or its grounds generally faces 3½ years in prison.
The bill also would preserve the current permit system with training for people who need a permit to carry in other states.
According to the National Rifle Association, 12 other states already allow concealed carry without a permit.
Five groups have registered in support of the Wisconsin bill, including the National Rifle Association and Wisconsin FORCE, a group of gun and shooting range owners. Nineteen groups have registered against the bill, including the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the city of Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
Dozens of people packed the room waiting for their turn to speak, including members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that formed following shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort.
NRA lobbyist Scott Meyer, who is white, told the committee that mandating costly training can prevent minorities from obtaining permits, adding that owning guns was one of the great equalizers for the "the blacks" after emancipation. Taylor, who is black, chastised him, saying that referring to African-Americans as "the blacks" doesn't help cultural diversity.
Annette Olson of Glenwood City drew guffaws from the bill's opponents when she told the committee she believes carrying guns is a right handed down from God.
"We have the ability to openly carry a firearm in Wisconsin without a license or training. Why does covering it up or putting it in my purse any different?" she said. "I know that every one of you here believes in liberty. Do not legislative against liberty."
Democratic Sen. Fred Risser challenged Olson, asking if he has a right to feel safe when he's walking down the street. When Olson replied that law-abiding people wouldn't hurt him, Risser said he can't tell who's good or bad on the street.
"Then worry about everybody," Olson said. Some in the audience responded: "We are!"
Doug Mering, vice president of the Baraboo School Board, told the committee he's worried the bill would lead to more guns in schools, making it harder to identify bad guys if a shooter invades a school and increasing the probability an innocent person would get shot. He also said school grounds are too vast to adequately post signs prohibiting weapons.
Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel said he hears from people afraid they will be charged with felonies for having a weapon on them when they drive up to a school to drop off their children. The bill would remedy that, he said. Mering said he hadn't heard of anyone worried about that in Baraboo.
Michael Stewart, president of Wisconsin FORCE, said people will seek out training on their own. Taylor responded that everyone thought people would use condoms after they were invented but they don't.
The committee wasn't expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.