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Candidate briefings before the debate

Democratic candidates, shown being briefed before a recent forum, offered a wide variety of ideas about combating gun violence and keeping schools safe.

While Gov. Scott Walker develops a plan to address school safety in the midst of a national debate on gun violence, the top Democrats running for governor are offering plenty of their own ideas.

For the most part there isn’t much difference between the top nine Democratic candidates on gun regulation and school safety, though two candidates, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, and state Superintendent Tony Evers, declined to provide their position on several of the ideas put forward by their opponents.

Vinehout also stands out as the only Democratic legislator in the state since 1998 who has received a contribution from the National Rifle Association, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Vinehout said one unsolicited $500 donation from the NRA came a week before her 2014 re-election campaign. She said she has voted both for and against legislation supported by the NRA.

“During my three terms, I have not followed anyone’s program,” Vinehout said. “I have voted on the merits as I see them, regardless of who is supporting and who is opposing.”

Other candidates such as Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik and former state Rep. Kelda Roys, of Madison, highlighted that they have not and won’t take contributions from the NRA.

The Wisconsin State Journal asked the top nine Democratic candidates to provide their ideas for how to address gun violence and school safety, which generated a variety of proposals. The newspaper then asked the candidates whether they supported the ideas of their fellow candidates.

Evers said he supported instituting universal background checks (as did all of the other Democrats in their initial response), reinstating a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases that Walker lifted in 2015 and banning devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to rapidly fire, known as bump stocks.

Evers also supports allowing districts to exceed state-imposed taxing limits to fund school safety officers and facility improvements, something Democrats created in the 2009-11 budget, but Walker and Republicans removed in the 2011-13 budget.

But Evers wouldn’t offer his position on whether to ban the sale of assault weapons and a dozen other ideas put forward by others.

UW-Stevens Point political science professor Ed Miller said supporting some gun regulations will likely be necessary to win the Democratic primary, but he’s skeptical whoever is the nominee for the general election would support any serious gun control measures. By not offering his position on various gun proposals, Evers may be looking ahead to the general election, Miller said.

“He doesn’t want to box himself in,” Miller said. “He knows that the primary electorate is different from the general election voters. One of the typical problems is for Democrats to move too left or Republicans too right to win the primary but then have difficulty moving back to the center for the general election.”

Support for gun

control measures

A Marquette Law School Poll released Monday found 81 percent of registered voters support expanding background checks to gun shows and private sales, though only 56 percent support banning assault-style weapons. And 62 percent said new gun control laws would have little to no effect on mass shootings in the country.

Former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Matt Flynn, the only military veteran among the top tier Democrats, emphasized his support for the Second Amendment right to bear handguns, rifles and shotguns while calling for a ban on the AR-15 semi-automatic gun and military-style weapons. He said schools should have a safe perimeter with locked doors and only one way for visitors to enter during the day.

Asked about the ideas put forward by other candidates, Flynn said he supported them all.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, Gronik and Roys offered several original ideas, meaning they suggested the proposal before being asked to respond to ideas put forth by other candidates.

Soglin offered the most ideas that no one else brought up on their own, including support for a universal law enforcement database allowing for tracing of weapons, banning replica guns, limiting the number of firearms that can be purchased at one time and within a month, and banning civilians from using armor-piercing bullets, all of which most other candidates agreed with when asked.

Wachs proposed requiring all firearms dealers to keep weapons under lock prior to sale. Roys called for raising the minimum age for gun purchases to 21. Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell and Soglin both suggested a so-called “red flag” law, which would allow family or police to ask a court to take guns from someone deemed a lethal threat.

Former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe suggested ending the state’s pre-emption of municipal gun laws. Soglin said he supported the idea, but only if municipalities had to maintain at least minimum statewide standards.

Three candidates — Gronik, Roys and Vinehout — suggested providing more funding for mental health was part of the solution. Soglin took exception to including that idea in the discussion, saying, “we need that without the issue of gun safety” and calling it “an excuse by some to avoid real common sense gun control.”

Against arming teachers

Like Walker, whose campaigns have been boosted by $3.5 million from the NRA over the past 20 years, all of the Democratic candidates said they opposed arming teachers. The NRA, President Donald Trump, Attorney General Brad Schimel and both Republicans running for U.S. Senate have suggested giving schools that option in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre that left 17 dead.

Walker’s campaign referred questions about the various Democratic proposals to his official office, which declined to offer his position on any of the ideas other than to note he has increased funding for mental health services in schools.

“He is communicating with school officials and law enforcement on ways to make our schools safer,” spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said. “In addition, he is working with legislative leaders in the state Assembly and Senate to ensure that a plan can achieve support in both chambers. A comprehensive school safety plan will be introduced once there is agreement between the bodies to move the process forward.”

Editor's note: This story has been changed to accurately reflect Matt Flynn's position on gun ownership.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.