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Advocates against gun violence call on lawmakers to take up background check bill

The activists visited the Wisconsin State Capitol Thursday. 'I'm begging … for change to happen now,' one said.

Two women stand together holding photos of their lost loved one.
Marlena Banks, left, and Cheryl Rohloff, right, of their family member, Tommy Shaw, who was a victim of gun violence Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, during a press conference at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

On the 27th anniversary of her brother’s murder Thursday, Marlena Banks spoke at the Wisconsin State Capitol to advocate for gun safety legislation.

“This affects more than just a community. It breaks families,” she said of gun violence. “I just hope that our legislators do care enough to pass these laws that would save lives and prevent the hurt that our family has had to go through.”

Banks and other advocates against gun violence were in Madison to demand action on legislation that they said will reduce gun homicides and suicides.

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They joined with Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic attorney general in calling for universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would allow guns to be temporarily removed from people deemed dangerous.

A person comforts someone in the crowd by putting their arm around their shoulders as they listen.
People listen to speakers during a press conference about stricter gun laws Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Bills to implement those policies have been introduced by Democrats, and are unlikely to pass the GOP-held legislature. Attorney General Josh Kaul called those measures “common sense.”

“To the legislators who are blocking this from moving forward: let me just say this,” he said Thursday. “If you are blocking common sense gun safety legislation from moving forward, you are not tough on crime.”

The group also supports two bipartisan proposals: one that would offer a tax incentive for gun safety devices, like trigger locks and gun safes, and one that would train gun store owners to respond to signs of suicidality in customers.

About two-thirds of gun deaths in Wisconsin each year are suicides, according to data from Everytown, a national gun safety group. Both suicides and homicides by gun have increased in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, in recent years.

Research shows that white people are most at risk for firearm suicides, while people of color, especially Black people, are most at risk for firearm homicides.

And guns are the leading cause of death among children and teens across the country, including in Wisconsin, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The number of children being treated for gunshot wounds at Children’s Wisconsin hospital has spiked in recent years, according to the hospital’s president, Peggy Troy.

For those reasons, the advocates said Thursday, all Wisconsinites are affected by gun violence.

“Some people will try to make this out to be an urban issue, or a Black/brown issue,” said Darryl Morin, the director of Forward Latino, a group that organizes Latino voters. “But let me share this fact with you. Gun violence is happening in every county in every community all throughout the state.”

Morin also oversees the 80% Coalition, so named because polling indicates that about 80 percent of Wisconsinites support universal background checks on gun purchases.

State Sen. Johnson speaks into microphones at a podium.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson speaks during a press conference Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, called on her colleagues to move the Democratic bills through the legislative process.

“For those families who have lost loved ones – and some of those families have been affected more than one time – they deserve the respect of this building, to at least give these pieces of legislation a hearing,” she said.

Anthony Cooper, the founder and president of Focused Interruption, an anti-gun violence group in Dane County, said he was “tired of losing people.”

“My plea – matter of fact, I’m begging – is for change to happen now,” he said.

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