Ignoring polls, Walker bows to ‘NRA masters’

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Gov. Scott Walker said his administration would not push for more extensive background checks for gun owners in Wisconsin, despite recent polls showing overwhelming public support for the concept both in the state and nationally.

A Marquette University Law School poll released in March found that 81 percent of Wisconsinites favor background checks for people who purchase firearms at gun shows or from private residents, while only 18 percent oppose them. The response numbers were almost identical for people who own guns and those who don’t. The level of support was also nearly the same among men and women, as well as among residents in all parts of the state.

About 54 percent of Wisconsinites also said they favor banning military-style assault weapons, while 43 percent opposed such a ban.

Support for gun control reform seems to have spiked following the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December. Mass shootings last year at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek and at the Azana Salon and Spa in Brookfield brought the growing problem of gun violence closer to home.

Walker has received extensive funding from the National Rifle Association, which vehemently opposes all background checks, including those designed to prevent convicts and people with a history of mental illness from buying guns, ammunition and explosives.

The NRA provided $815,000 in independent campaign support for Walker’s recall race last year, and the NRA Political Victory Fund gave $10,000 directly to his campaign. The latter was the single largest contribution made by the political action committee in 2012, according to the National Institute on State Money in Politics.

Walker maintains an A-plus rating with the NRA, and he was a featured speaker at the group’s national convention last year. The group has praised Walker for signing laws allowing Wisconsin residents to carry concealed weapons and providing legal protection to homeowners who shoot and kill intruders on their property. Both actions are high on the NRA’s priority list.

Gun control advocates in some states had hoped reform would come from a federal measure to require background checks for people purchasing guns and ammunition over the Internet and at gun shows. The proposal was the most serious attempt at gun-control reform in the past 20 years.

But the U.S. Senate nixed the proposal last month, and it faced likely defeat in the House, where tea party adherents largely control the agenda.

The proposal needed 60 votes to clear the Senate but received only 55. Forty-two Senators, including four Democrats, voted no. Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin voted for the bill, but Republican Sen. Ron Johnson voted against it.

Wisconsin currently requires people who purchase guns from federally licensed dealers to undergo background checks, but the state doesn’t regulate private transactions. Democrats have introduced a bill in the Legislature calling for universal background checks, which would make it illegal to buy or sell most firearms in the state without a background check.

But Walker said the issue should be left to the federal government to regulate, not individual states.

State Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, said Walker and Republican legislative leaders who have refused to act on the bill he introduced were showing a “failure of leadership.”

“They need to listen to people around the country, and certainly people in this state, who overwhelmingly feel that having background checks is important to have when you transfer guns,” Richards said.

The NRA has registered its opposition to Richards’ gun background check bill in Wisconsin. The measure appears all but dead in the Legislature given Walker’s position and opposition from Republican leaders.

The bill has generated support from Elvin Daniel, whose sister Zina Haughton was among seven people shot in an attack by her husband at the Azana spa in Brookfield last October. Haughton’s husband bought the handgun from a private owner just days before the shooting and after she was granted a restraining order against him.

Backers of the Democrats’ bill, including Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, argue a universal background check law may have prevented his purchase of the gun.

But Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, has called the Democrats’ bill an unnecessary political stunt that would deny gun owners’ constitutional rights. Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the bill is going nowhere.

Walker’s mental health

In announcing his opposition to any form of gun control, Walker said he would direct efforts to curb gun-related violence by providing better mental health care. Walker has proposed adding about $29 million in funding for mental health programs in the state, including community-based care for adults and children with severe mental illness.

The spending plan also would establish an Office of Children’s Mental Health.

“For us that’s really where we’re going to put our focal point on,” Walker said. “The bigger issue seems to be treating chronic, untreated mental illness.”

Progressive leaders in Wisconsin say they’re puzzled by Walker’s sudden interest in mental health services. which took a serious hit when he refused to extend BadgerCare to about 175,000 Wisconsin residents. The program provides health care services to the working poor, but Walker chose to cut its rolls rather than take federal dollars attached to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which the governor rejects on ideological grounds.  Despite the objections of business and health care organizations in the state, Walker turned down $66 million in federal health dollars – dollars that Wisconsin taxpayers help to pay for.

Walker also distanced himself from health care reform by rejecting calls from Wisconsin’s medical and busineess leaders to create state-based insurance exchanges,

“There’s no question more funding for mental health services in Wisconsin is a good thing. But there’s also no question, based on his abysmal record, that Gov. Walker is not doing it out of concern for Wisconsinites struggling with mental health issues, but rather to advance his presidential ambitions and serve his National Rifle Association masters,” said One Wisconsin Now deputy director Mike Browne.

Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch, a former mental health nurse, said she’s pleased the governor is giving some attention to mental health, but she objects to the way he’s positioning it as a gun violence issue.

“One of the primary reasons people don’t seek mental health care is due to the stigma attached to it, and now the governor is linking it with gun violence in a very public way,” Pasch said. “If he wanted to link (the two), it should be in the context that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

Pasch also questioned whether the amount of funding requested by the governor is even enough to compensate for the loss of access to care resulting from Walker’s BadgerCare  cuts. She said that $12.5 million included in his $29 million mental health budget proposal is designated for people who are already incarcerated for crimes but are too unstable to stand trial.

“That money is just for Mendota (Mental Health Institute’s) forensic unit for people who have been arrested and may have a mental heath problem,” Pasch said. The new funding will get them out of jail and into the institute, where they can be brought up to a competency level to participate in their defense, she explained.

Pasch said the remaining money in the mental health budget would have to be divided among 72 counties, many of which lack mental health care providers and suffer from a scarcity of primary care physicians. For instance, the entire state north of  Wausau has only one or two child psychologists, Pasch said.

“It looks like the governor’s doing something, but it’s a misguided effort,” she concluded. “He needs to deal with guns and he needs to deal with mental health.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.