A group representing over 1,500 social workers has publicly endorsed two bills aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others, stating the bills would reduce suicides and gun violence.
Despite overwhelming support from over 80% of Wisconsinites, it will be difficult for the bills to make it through the Republican-controlled legislature, the bill’s sponsor Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, said in an email statement to The Badger Herald.
Bill LRB 2751, would require all guns to be purchased through a federally licensed gun dealer, Agard said. Federally-licensed gun dealers are required by law to conduct background checks on their buyers, according to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. People who cannot pass the background check — which includes convicted felons and people with a history of domestic assault — cannot purchase a firearm, according to the ATF.
The other bill, LRB 3007, would establish an Extreme Risk Protection Order procedure — also known as a red flag law — in Wisconsin. Under it, families would be able to petition the court to temporarily confiscate the firearms of a family member that a judge determines to be a danger to themselves or others, Agard said.
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Executive Director National Association of Social Workers Wisconsin Chapter Marc Herstand said many social workers help people struggling with suicide.
“As social workers we understand issues of mental health and what happens when people are suicidal,” Herstand said. “We need to keep them safe, and help them through that transition. We know that suicide attempts using a gun are fatal, so it’s absolutely critical that if somebody is feeling suicidal or extremely depressed that they not have a gun in the home at that time.”
Many people who attempt suicide do so impulsively, and if they are stopped, will generally not attempt again, Herstand said. But 90% of suicide attempts using a gun are fatal, compared to five percent of attempts using the most common alternative methods, Herstand added, citing a 2004 study from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Research from other states with red flag laws shows the legislation is effective in reducing firearm suicides, Herstand said, citing a 2018 study showing that the passage of red flag laws in Indiana and Connecticut resulted in decrease in firearm suicides.
Red flag laws can also provide a point of intervention for people who are suicidal, allowing them to get the treatment they need, Herstand said.
Suicide is a problem affecting many Wisconsin communities —in both urban and rural settings, Agard said.
“We know in Wisconsin that this is something affecting many people in our communities, not just in urban area, but also rural areas, including farmers,” Agard said. “We’ve been seeing a lot more suicide attempts because of the stress associated with farming. I see [these bills] as a way to support Wisconsin as a core, to make sure they’re around to enjoy their families, friends, and live their lives to the fullest.”
About 81% of Wisconsinites support red flag laws, according to a 2019 Marquette poll. But Wisconsin Republicans are unlikely to pass either bill because Wisconsin’s gerrymandered districts favor extreme Republican positions, Agard said.
None of the Republican legislators contacted responded at the time of this article’s publication.
Gerrymandering is the manipulation of political boundaries to favor one party over another, according to the Washington Post. Wisconsin is a purple state — it voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 — but its districts are gerrymandered so they benefit Republicans, Agard said.
Because many Republicans come from districts that gerrymandered so that a Republican is always likely to win, they don’t have worry about being voted out in favor of a Democrats, Agard said. Instead, they compete against other Republicans in the primaries — something which favors extreme positions among Republicans, Agard said.
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One reason that some people may be against red flag laws and expanding background checks is because they fear that it may take away some people’s second amendment rights, Brett Fankhauser, who is a Deerfield Pistol Center manager and Civilian NRA instructor, said.
“I imagine [red flag laws] could do some good,” Fankhauser said. “I don’t doubt the intention here is to save people, but there’s going to be a lot of people that it’s a big hindrance to, and there’s going to be few people who are going to lose their guns and their constitutional rights for nothing.”
While the bills may not see much progress in the Wisconsin legislature, Agard says she’s hopeful similar pieces of legislation will pass on a national level, pointing to the Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s recent announcement that the institution will study gun violence.
The CDC had been prevented from studying gun violence for more than two decades after Republicans and the gun lobby effectively blocked federal funding for firearm research with the Dickey Amendment, according to NPR.
But in the 2018 omnibus spending bill, Congress changed the wording in the Dickey Amendment to allow the CDC to study gun violence, according to the Washington Post. In a 2019 federal spending package, congress allocated $25 million to the National Institute of Health and the CDC to study gun violence, according to NPR.
“I believe that we will get there,” Agard said. “I do believe that if we can’t get this done in Wisconsin, it will happen at the national level.”