Wisconsin GOP governor candidates decry shootings but want to loosen gun safety laws

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Rebecca Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson, and Tim Michels condemned Democratic state officials after shootings in Milwaukee on May 13.

As the nation was reacting to what appears to be a racially motivated mass killing in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, Wisconsin residents were absorbing the consequences of local shooting sprees the previous evening and over the weekend.

Twenty-one people were injured on May 13 in three separate shooting events in downtown Milwaukee. 

On Sunday, leading candidates in the Republican primary for Wisconsin governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson, and Tim Michels condemned the violence and offered their own solutions to lawlessness.

Completely absent from their prescriptions was any mention of gun safety measures. 

Milwaukee is one of several U.S. cities that experienced higher-than-average gun violence and homicide rates in 2021. Out of 202 homicides in Milwaukee County recorded in 2021, 181 were shooting deaths. Cavalier Johnson, the mayor of Milwaukee, told the Associated Press, "A central part of the problem is that individuals easily get their hands on guns." 

All of the candidates promoted their "tough on crime" stances.

Kleefisch's campaign website says in its "Funding the Police" section that among her priorities are to "Fund at least 1,000 new cops to increase law enforcement's presence in our communities"; "Surge State Patrol to high crime areas as a short-term solution to out-of-control crime facing this state"; and "Support school resource officers in schools with a history of violence."

The "News" section of Kleefisch's campaign website includes reporting that she told right-wing talk show host Jay Weber on May 16, "The simple points are to put 1,000 more cops on the street. Bail and sentencing reform to stop these bad D.A.'s and these bad judges. Fire [Milwaukee County] District Attorney John Chisholm on day one. And use the Wisconsin State Patrol to surge where violent crime is surging."

In a separate campaign video, Kleefisch centered her commitment to the interests of gun owners: "Our Second Amendment rights are under constant threat from the radical leftists who can't fathom our way of life. ... We need a change in this state, and as your governor, I'll support constitutional carry, and fight efforts by the federal government to try and take away your Second Amendment rights."

"Constitutional carry" is a term used by people who believe anyone should be able to carried a concealed firearm without training or a permit. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April that term-limited Democratic Gov. Tony Evers opposes "constitutional carry" and that he said, "Giving anyone the ability to carry a loaded and concealed weapon in public without any kind of safety training or permitting process will not improve public safety in our state." 

Businessman Nicholson, who trails Kleefisch in the primary race, tweeted on Sunday: "21 shot on Friday; 3 murdered last night. Out of control car thefts. Record-breaking homicides. @GovEvers, @WisDOJ, @DAJohnChisholm - you've let the lawlessness fester. We're sick of it. Time to turn the page. We need new leaders who are serious about getting this back on track."

Nicholson has made law and order a central pillar of his campaign, decrying the state of the state and positioning himself as the candidate with the fix. He has also provided a "5 Point Plan for a Safer Wisconsin" that includes working with a "law enforcement advisory team" and instituting "mandatory minimum sentencing for violent criminals."

Nicholson offered no provisions for gun law reform. Like Kleefisch, however, he supports lifting restrictions on concealed carry. The Journal Sentinel reported that Nicholson said, "It is crystallized to everybody that the police won't always be in a position to protect your life and, therefore, the people of Wisconsin, while the left attacks the Second Amendment and defunds police, should have again a full Second Amendment right." 

The campaign website of Tim Michels, a relative newcomer to the Wisconsin governor's race who only began his campaign in late April, contains a "Back the Blue-Print" to "add cops, prevent defunding of police, prosecute riot organizers to ensure every neighborhood is a safe neighborhood." There is no mention of reforming gun laws, although he has been more muted than his opponents about defending the Second Amendment. His proposals are not dissimilar to Kleefisch's — no surprise, perhaps, because before deciding to challenge her, he was on the board of her 1848 Project, a group that develops and promotes right-wing policies for Wisconsin. 

The Michels plan includes firing the Milwaukee district attorney, John Chisholm, for his supposedly lenient sentencing of people convicted of crimes in the county. Michels would also increase the number of police officers and state prosecutors, take action against what the plan terms "all who have participated in mob or riot activity," and "create a quick reaction task force within the National Guard specifically trained to overwhelm an out-of-control urban area." The only mention of guns in his plan is related to mandatory minimum sentences for possession of firearms by those convicted of felonies. 

Evers has long supported more background checks for those buying guns. In a statement to the American Independent Foundation, his office pointed out that he has invested more than $100 million in violence prevention programs and local law enforcement agencies. Additionally, it said:

During his first year in office, after repeatedly calling on the Legislature to act on commonsense gun safety measures with broad public support, Gov. Evers signed Executive Order #54 calling the Legislature to meet in a special session to take up legislation to require universal background checks for all firearm purchases and to create an extreme risk protection order (ERPO) process that would give family members and law enforcement officials the tools they need to intervene when an individual is at risk of harming themselves or others.

Four more shootings occurred on Monday and Tuesday in Milwaukee, leaving one person dead and four wounded. 

The Wisconsin Republican primary for governor will take place on Aug. 9, 2022.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.