Part Three Universal background checks for gun sales stall in Wisconsin

by Alexandra Arriaga
Wisconsin Center
for Investigative Journalism

State Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, and state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, co-sponsored a bill again in the most recent legislative session to implement universal background checks. Berceau called it a “common sense” step to reduce gun violence.

“It seems really obvious to me that if you are a person who knows that you can’t pass a background check, you’re going to buy from one of these private sellers, and that is indeed what’s going on,” Berceau said.

Under the bill, all firearm transactions would have to go through a licensed dealer, and buyers would have to pass a background check, with certain exceptions. Gifts between family members, for example, would be exempt.

As a representative from Milwaukee, where gun violence spiked in 2015, Harris Dodd called the legislation a “no-brainer.” Milwaukee had 119 gun-related homicides and 633 nonfatal shootings in 2015, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission — the highest in at least 10 years. The Center has reported that such crimes cost individuals and the state of Wisconsin billions a year in medical bills, police and prosecutorial costs, lost lives and stunted futures.

Of the known suspects in the 2015 gun homicides in Milwaukee, 69 percent — or 66 suspects — were legally prohibited from possessing a firearm at the time of the crime, according to the commission.

Milwaukee’s lobbyist, Jennifer Gonda, said universal background checks are a key part of the city’s legislative agenda. But she is not optimistic any of the city’s priorities to reduce gun violence will pass the current Legislature.

“We didn’t make much headway with the Democrats and … we’re making less with the Republicans,” Gonda said. “In some ways, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels a little bit.”

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a member of the NRA, has opposed universal background checks and other gun regulations. Clarke, a Democrat who spoke at the Republican National Convention, has advised residents to arm themselves to stay safe.

“Universal background checks and limiting magazine capacity are offered as reasonable approaches to reducing violence” but are “technical fixes” that mostly “frustrate the overwhelming number of law-abiding American gun own- ers,” Clarke wrote in an opinion piece for CNN in 2014.

Elvin Daniel said some steps toward reducing gun violence in Wisconsin have been taken. He appeared with Walker in 2014 when the governor signed a law requiring people served with restraining orders to surrender their firearms.

But for now, universal background checks — which Daniel believes would have prevented the Azana Spa mass shooting that claimed three lives including his sister’s — remain out of reach. He is reminded of that every day by the purple bracelet that reads “For the love of Zina” on his wrist.

“Had he gone through a background check, he wouldn’t have been able to buy a gun,” Daniel said. “Chances are, Zina would still be with us right now.”

Dee J. Hall and Coburn Dukehart of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Bridgit Bowden contributed to this report.

It was produced in collaboration with Precious Lives, a twoyear project investigating the problem of gun violence among young people, its causes and potential solutions in the Milwaukee area and statewide.


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