For most of this decade, the most contentious gun issue in Wisconsin has been that of concealed carry, or the legal sanction to carry a firearm in public in a hidden manner, either on the body or in close proximity.
But this year that affair may take a backseat to a rapidly intensifying debate about the legality of open carry, or the act of publicly carrying a firearm in plain view.
Ostensibly, Wisconsin is an open-carry state, meaning there is no law against a law-abiding citizen openly carrying a legal firearm. Theoretically, at least, one could strap on a holster and pistol and go buy groceries, or plant trees in one's own yard, whether or not such an action might be wise.
Indeed, Wisconsin remains one of only two states in the nation not to allow some form of concealed carry, and one of the most-repeated arguments used by concealed-carry opponents is that it is not necessary because citizens can openly carry their guns.
Then attorney general Jim Doyle used that precise argument before the state Supreme Court in Wisconsin v Hamdan, in which the state carved out a concealed weapon exemption for small business owners.
As governor, Doyle reportedly reiterated his belief at a Lake Delton press conference, in which The Wisconsin Dells Events quoted him as saying, "If you want to carry a gun in Wisconsin, wear it on your hip."
Then again, maybe not, if the attitudes of other state officials, not to mention more than a few police actions, are any indication.
Doyle's proclamation notwithstanding, others in his administration take a wary view of wearing a gun openly on the hip, and their message is, if you do it, you're inviting trouble.
For example, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hunter education administrator Timothy Lawhern wrote last year that openly carrying a gun would likely provoke an unsympathetic and severe response from law enforcement officers.
"Note that the officer on the street doesn't expect to see firearms openly exposed," Lawhern wrote in the April 2008 issue of the Wisconsin Hunter Education newsletter. "In most cases when they do see a firearm, they draw theirs and tell the person 'Let me see your hands! Don't move!' In some cases they yell, 'Put the gun down,' or 'Drop the gun!'"
Him or them?
So whom should the public believe, the governor or his underlings?
Those who are inclined to place faith in the governor's words and legal contentions might want to consider the case of West Allis resident Brad Krause, whose experience last summer while wearing his legal firearm on his own property eerily recalled Lawhern's stern admonition.
According to multiple reports, on Aug 22, 2008, Krause was at home planting trees - with a holstered firearm on his side. That prompted a neighbor to call the police to ask if that was legal.
It wasn't, at least to the West Allis police. The department dispatched two squad cars to his residence and, after approaching him with their weapons drawn, ultimately arrested him for disorderly conduct, says Gene German, a gun-rights advocate who has followed the case closely.
"The police had him standing in handcuffs on his own property for 45 minutes with squad cars parked in front of his residence while they tried to figure out a way to arrest him," says German, who is the state director of the American Association of Certified Firearms Instructors and one of the founders of Wisconsin Patriots, a grassroots organization whose declared mission is to "encourage our fellow citizens to restore, exercise and preserve their individual rights, including the right to be safe."
"They shortly discovered Brad had no criminal record and was lawfully openly carrying on his own property, but instead of releasing him and returning his weapon, they tried to figure out how to arrest him. A call to the supervising lieutenant provided the answer: claim his action of carrying a weapon is disorderly conduct, and haul him down to the station. His firearm was taken away from him without a receipt, and it has not been returned. The police have effectively banned his exercise of his right by disarming him." ...
Article here. Worth a read. If I recall correctly, the Wisconsin Supreme Court (in the Hamdan case mentioned in the article) has upheld the ban on concealed carry under that state's constitution, due to the legality and supposed availability of open carry. But, as the article notes, apparently some law enforcement agencies are doing their best to suppress open carry via the use of specious "disorderly conduct" charges. Hopefully, Wisconsinites will get their act together and not stand for these sorts of infringements.