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Guns may be allowed in Wisconsin Assembly, not Senate galleries

Posted on : 01-11-2011 | By : Dean | In : EN101, Sources T3

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By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel

Madison – Members of the public will be able to carry guns when they observe the state Assembly, but not the Senate, under differing rules the two GOP-led houses are developing for separate parts of the Capitol.

The discussion comes as Wisconsin moves to become the 11th state in the nation to allow concealed weapons in most of the Capitol’s elegant marble halls and rooms. Lawmakers are deciding whether to allow guns in the parts of the building that they control after Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration told them that guns would be allowed in the parts of the statehouse controlled by the executive branch.

On Thursday afternoon, Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) dropped his fight against allowing people to bring guns onto the Senate floor after he succeeded in getting them prohibited in the public viewing galleries that overlook the floor.

“I wanted a touchdown; I got a field goal,” Ellis said Thursday. Earlier in the day he had said, “We have enough problems as it is without having Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy with their six-guns” on the floor.

The issue is now being debated after Walker signed a bill allowing people to seek concealed-weapons permits starting Nov. 1. Permits will be granted to those 21 and older who take training and pass a background check showing they are not felons or otherwise barred from carrying guns. Under that law, the public is barred from carrying guns in courthouses and police stations, which would include the Supreme Court’s hearing room in the statehouse and the Capitol police station in the basement.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of last year seven states allowed visitors to carry weapons into their capitols with a concealed-weapons permit, and two other states allowed anyone to carry a weapon into their statehouse. The conference couldn’t immediately provide the names of those states. Since last year, at least one other state, Florida, has moved to allow visitors to carry concealed guns with the proper permits.

“We do not know if there are any further restrictions regarding the chambers (in those capitols) because we have not asked that question in our surveys,” conference spokeswoman Meagan Dorsch said.

In the Capitol in Madison, the areas controlled by the Senate would allow concealed carry with the exception of the viewing gallery during Senate sessions and the offices of individual senators who chose to prohibit guns. Concealed carry would be allowed on the Senate floor and in committee hearing rooms.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said a committee would vote soon to approve this policy.

Different policies

Ellis and Fitzgerald – the two top leaders in the Senate – defended their decision to treat the viewing galleries differently than other parts of the Capitol. They said that while the Senate is in session, members of the public are already barred from certain activities in the balconies, such as filming proceedings.

“It’s a unique part of the Capitol,” Scott Fitzgerald said. “It’s got a long list of prohibitions that’s been in place for many years.”

A committee of Assembly leaders had planned to vote Thursday to allow guns on the Assembly floor and in the Assembly viewing galleries, while also leaving the decision on representatives’ offices to the individual lawmakers.

But the office of Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) said Thursday that the committee vote would be postponed, because the overall Capitol policy from Walker’s Department of Administration won’t be unveiled until Friday. Fitzgerald said the vote would be taken soon.

“We feel in the spirit of the law we passed we want law-abiding citizens to be able to protect themselves,” Jeff Fitzgerald said.

He said he would allow concealed weapons in his office.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said the issue was a distraction from the more important problem of lowering the state’s unemployment rate.

“I didn’t think they could talk any less about jobs,” Barca said of Republicans. “But they found a way.”

Barca said he had a number of questions about how the policy would work, including whether it might allow rifles to be carried into the statehouse and whether visitors in the galleries would be able to openly load and unload their guns.

Barca said he hadn’t made a final decision about whether to allow concealed carry in his office. First, he said, he would need to see the Walker administration policy and then talk with his staff and constituents about what would make them feel safest.

Ellis said he didn’t like the idea of visitors carrying guns into his office.

“I don’t want them in my office. They can leave them in Frank Lasee’s office,” Ellis said, referring to the state senator who strongly supports concealed carry.

Lasee, a Republican from De Pere, had joked that he could have a “guns welcome” sign for his office. Lasee’s chief of staff, Rob Kovach, said the senator didn’t think guns should be banned from the galleries.

“If they’re allowed in the Capitol, why not the gallery?” Kovach said.

So far, only a small number of states allow concealed carry in their capitols, and even then it can be subject to restrictions. Florida, for instance, opened up its statehouse earlier this month in response to a change in state law, the Palm Beach Post reported.

Gun owners with concealed-carry permits can bring their guns into the statehouse there as long as they show their license and photo identification when they enter the building. But they can’t take their guns into “any meeting of the Legislature or a committee thereof” and are given a written notice of that when they come in the building, the newspaper reported.

States, besides Wisconsin, allow visitors to carry weapons into their capitols. Eight of those require a concealed-weapons permit.

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