Wisconsin has few gun laws on the books but still ranks somewhere near the middle among states for strictness because so many other states do even less.
Last week's mass killing of 20 children and six educators at a Connecticut elementary school put a renewed focus on state and federal gun violence prevention laws, leading some to call for more gun control.
Wisconsin requires a 48-hour waiting period on handgun sales from licensed dealers — a modest measure, gun control advocates say, but tougher than 39 states that have no waiting periods.
The state also imposes some regulations on licensed handgun dealers and performs its own background checks on handgun sales at licensed dealers, rather than relying on the FBI. Those requirements — stronger than many states — led the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco to give Wisconsin a C-minus grade in its state-by-state report card this year.
"It's not a good score," said Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney with the nonprofit law center. "The reason it's so high is that most other states have done next to nothing."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, using slightly different criteria, gave Wisconsin only three points out of a possible 100 in its 2011 report card, although nine other states scored even worse.
Wisconsin makes no attempt to regulate person-to-person sales by private, unlicensed sellers — a huge loophole, critics say, because it allows unregulated sales on street corners, at gun shows and over the Internet. About 40 percent of all guns sales occur outside of licensed dealers, Nichols said.
Anyone who sells more than the "occasional" firearm is supposed to become federally licensed, Nichols said. However, "occasional" is not defined and the federal government has limited resources to monitor the matter, she said.
The National Rifle Association has been largely silent following the Connecticut shootings, declining media requests, deactivating its Facebook page and halting its Twitter feed. Late Tuesday, it said it is "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again" but will not be commenting until a news conference Friday in Washington, D.C.
Jeff Nass, president of Wisconsin Force, an NRA-chartered organization, said Tuesday his group "is not going to propose or oppose anything until things have settled down and people have a chance to mourn and recover at least somewhat from the horrendous thing that happened."
Larry Wipperfurth, an NRA member and manager of Wilderness Fish & Game in Sauk City, said he thinks Wisconsin's gun laws are adequate and should not be altered. The Sauk City store has been in business 61 years and is a federally licensed firearms dealer.
Wipperfurth, 50, said the debate over gun control following the Connecticut shootings often has been frustrating because it ignores numerous variables that may have contributed to the tragedy.
"You've got to look at all aspects of personal responsibility in life," he said. "What about these violent video games that have become baby-sitters? What about a TV show like 'The Walking Dead,' where you have people shooting each other for the whole show? I know that's a First Amendment issue. But I feel as strongly about the Second Amendment as the First or any other amendment."
Wisconsin does not require firearms to be registered, making statistics on gun ownership hard to come by. This isn't unusual. Only Hawaii and the District of Columbia require registration of all firearms, although six other states have partial registration requirements covering some firearms.
Polls by the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization, suggest Wisconsin has a high rate of gun ownership, with a little less than half of Wisconsin households having guns. The national average is about one-third, said Jeri Bonavia, the group's executive director.
That aligns with a report by USA Carry, a gun rights organization, which ranks Wisconsin 12th highest for gun ownership, with 44.4 percent of the state's population owning firearms.
Last year, Wisconsin had 2,830 licensed firearms dealers, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Only 14 states had more.
Figuring out what kinds of firearms Wisconsin residents own is nearly impossible, experts say, due to the lack of registration, the number of unlicensed gun sales and the NRA's efforts to keep gun ownership data private. For instance, Nichols, the law center attorney, said she is not aware of any document listing the number of assault weapons owned nationally.
Police have said the Connecticut shooter used an AR-15, a popular style of semiautomatic rifle. Two years ago, the NRA estimated that at current levels of production, the total number of AR-15s in the U.S. would exceed 2.5 million some time in 2010.
A federal ban on certain kinds of semiautomatic firearms, including some models of AR-15s, expired in 2004. States have great latitude to regulate firearms on their own, but few do, Nichols said.
Wisconsin has no ban on assault weapons or large-capacity ammunition magazines. California, which gets high marks from gun control advocates, bans most assault weapons and prohibits the sale or transfer of large capacity ammunition magazines.
Both measures improve public safety, Nichols said. Wipperfurth disagrees and does not support an assault-weapons ban or curbs on magazine capacity.
"In this situation out East, it wouldn't have mattered if he'd had 10 rounds or 30 rounds," he said. "With practice, you can reload in about 10 seconds. He had no opposition in that situation, so it goes back to why he walked into that school and killed a bunch of innocent children."
Gun rights advocates note Connecticut has some of the strongest gun laws on the books, yet those laws did not prevent last week's tragedy.
Bonavia, of the Milwaukee anti-violence group, said no piece or set of legislation can necessarily prevent a mass shooting. But gun violence is not limited to mass shootings, she said.
"We also must look at the day-to-day shootings that occur and the policies that could reduce those tragedies," she said.
Her organization's top priority is requiring background checks for all guns purchased nationwide, not just the ones through licensed dealers. Wipperfurth said he's hesitant to back this idea, even though unregulated dealers don't have to jump through the legal hoops his store does.
Unlicensed dealers at gun shows, for instance, have their role, Wipperfurth said, in that they offer an interesting array of firearms not always available through licensed dealers. "I'm real careful about putting blanket regulations on things," he said.