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Nearly everyone supports universal background checks for gun buyers. Here's why Wisconsin is unlikely to make it law

MONONA

Jeraldin Romero stepped into a Walmart on Tuesday carrying in her hand a 12-volt tire inflator to return to the store—and the weight of the weekend on her mind.

“It was unfair,” Romero said about a shooting three days earlier targeting Latinos at a different Walmart hundreds of miles away in Texas that left 22 people dead, including nine Mexican nationals.

“We’re all human beings no matter what color we are. ... Nobody should just be targeted to be killed just because somebody doesn’t like us,” said Romero, who is Hispanic. “I do think about how this event did happen at a Walmart, but I just know how it is here in Madison.”

But it has happened here in Wisconsin. Four were killed two years ago in Marathon County by a man furious about his wife filing for divorce. Six were killed at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek seven years ago. And 24 teenagers were taken hostage at gunpoint by a classmate in Marinette nine years ago.

There have been more mass shootings nationwide this year than days. The public is desperate for a solution, but in Wisconsin, that likely won’t come in the form of any new laws governing who can have a gun.

Democratic lawmakers for years have introduced a number of measures that would make it more difficult to possess firearms—especially ones that can kill a number of people in just seconds.

But Republican lawmakers who control the state Legislature won’t take up any legislation that places new restrictions on guns and instead have passed bills that beef up security at schools and increase funding for mental health services.

Still, the shootings continue.

One step toward keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals would be to expand background checks to private gun sales—a proposal lawmakers often turn to because of its widespread support.

The vast majority of people in Wisconsin agree on making that policy change, according to 2018 polling by Marquette University Law School. Nationally, 96% of Democrats, 84% of Republicans and 89% of Independents support the measure, according to a recent Marist poll.

Despite overwhelming support, the move likely won’t be made here anytime soon.

“For any Republican to say ‘I support universal background checks’ would be career suicide,” Clemson University political scientist Steven Miller said.

The National Rifle Association’s political arm likely would help elect a primary opponent of any Republican candidate who seeks or supports such restrictions, Miller said, and support for the added safeguard, while wide, isn’t intense.

“Most people think that’s a good idea, but most people don’t care too much. And the people who oppose that (expanded background checks) are really serious about that,” he said. “Because the minority is much more mobilized, they are more likely to get what they want.”

To that point, the same Marquette University Law School polling showed that while 81% supported making the change, 43% didn’t think the measure would actually stop any mass shootings like those in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the idea likely won’t be taken up until the issue becomes good politics.

“Regardless of the public support that may exist for certain specific gun reform measures, the issue does not appear to have been a factor in any state elections,” he said. “Unless or until the issue of gun reform is viewed by lawmakers and candidates to be a meaningful election issue, it seems unlikely that much will be passed in this state anytime soon.”

Expanding background checks to online buyers of firearms would have prevented a Brown Deer man who was barred by a judge from possessing firearms from purchasing online the handgun he used to kill three people at a Brookfield spa in 2012.

But some still fear the policy.

“The biggest fear with universal background checks ... the only way to police that is gun registration,” said Brett Fankhauser, manager of Deerfield Pistol and Archery Center in eastern Dane County. “The big fear among the community is ‘OK, first they register them and then they come and get them.’ And that may not happen, but that’s the fear.”

Scott Whiting, who has owned the indoor range and shop for 20 years, said new laws aren’t needed and that the ones in place aren’t being enforced properly.

“Of course I’m a supporter of our Second Amendment right, but on the other hand I agree there probably needs to be some better monitoring to make sure we’re keeping firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” he said.

Whiting said barring repeat criminal offenders from owning firearms is one law already in place that needs to be better enforced. He also said anyone stopped from buying a gun would find a way to get one anyway.

“They’re buying them on the street somewhere. They’re stealing them somewhere,” he said. “They’re committing a crime to get a gun to commit a crime.”

Connor Betts—a 24-year-old who used a .223-caliber rifle with 100-round magazines to kill nine people in less than 30 seconds in Dayton on Sunday—should never have been allowed to legally buy a firearm, he said.

“He had a hit list,” Whiting said. “Had that been addressed back when they determined (he made the list), perhaps all of this could have been avoided. ... The issue wasn’t the gun. The issue was the guy.”

Even so, Fankhauser isn’t convinced Betts wouldn’t have sought to kill another way.

“He would have found another way to do what he did. Whether it be a knife or driving a car into a crowd of people. Everybody has cars,” he said.

Gov. Tony Evers has called on lawmakers to pass a so-called red flag law, which allows police or family members to petition a court to remove firearms from anyone deemed dangerous to themselves or others. President Donald Trump has said he supports a national version of the measure, too.

Republican leaders of the state Legislature are opposed to the idea, worried the red flag process would unfairly remove firearms from people who have a constitutional right to them.

“I will not entertain proposals to take away second amendment rights or due process,” Vos said Tuesday on Twitter.

Whiting and Fankhauser suspect such a policy could lead to abuse through retribution—like a jilted spouse seeking to punish their wife or husband—resulting in safe gun owners losing their firearms.

“He’s guilty until proven innocent—that’s the problem with the red flag law,” Whiting said. “I realize a certain percentage of a time they’re right—and it’s a good thing—but there’s a lot of times when they’re wrong.”

Pardeep Kaleka lost his father seven years ago when a white supremacist brought a handgun to a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, which Kaleka’s father founded. Satwant Singh Kaleka was one of six people who were killed in the attack.

Kaleka said assuming attackers will find other ways to carry out the same level of violence as mass shooters is speculative—and an assumption that doesn’t acknowledge reality.

“That’s not what’s going on,” Kaleka said. “What’s happening in front of our eyes is innocent people are being killed by firearms.”

Kaleka’s father was killed in 2012—just four months before another killer walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 26 people, including 20 children under the age of 7.

He said momentum to change state and national policies related to guns was high following the two shootings but has since waned. He’s still hopeful, even with resignation in his voice.

“We were inspired quite a bit about what we can do and what we can pass—some kind of sane gun legislation,” he said. “But over time, just the habituation of mass violence—mass murder—has dampened that spirit.”

Hurdles have been put in place by a vocal few in the face of what feels like enormous support, he said.

“A lot of times the fringes are better at standing in the way of progress, and the other people who are saying yes are saying it in secrecy,” he said. “So that 90%—I will not say they are not speaking at all—but if it’s in silence, it’s not creating enough of a want to (change policy).”

Kaleka wants Wisconsin lawmakers to expand background checks to private gun sales and gun shows and registering all firearms—not just for those that are carried as a concealed weapon.

Miller, the Clemson professor, said neither policy would really blunt the possibility of more shootings.

“The problem is in part both the easy access to gun supply and the sheer volume of gun supply,” he said. “Universal background checks are nice, but you have to address the scope of the fact that AR-15s are not designed for self-defense. They are designed for warfare.”


Local
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Edgerton Fire Department honors four people for their lifesaving actions

EDGERTON

You can meet some of the best people under the worst circumstances.

Edgerton Fire Chief Randy Pickering said that sums up what has happened since a July 5 fire that destroyed the house at 933 Meadow Circle in the town of Fulton.

On Thursday, four Edgerton residents were honored by the Edgerton Fire Department for their roles in helping save the lives of homeowners: Mark and Stephanie Boeche, their two grandsons and daughter who were visiting, and their dogs.

Natalie Gould and Ashlyn Oren, both 19 of Edgerton, were honored with the Meritorious Community Service Award. Travis Lauer and Andrew Lyga, both of Edgerton, were honored with heroism awards.

As Gould and Oren drove home from a bonfire at a friend’s house shortly after midnight July 5, they happened upon a much larger, more dangerous fire.

Instead of driving past the engulfed home on Meadow Circle, Gould and Oren pulled over, called 911 and laid on the car horn to wake up the family sleeping inside.

“It’s a big fire. It’s really big,” Oren said during the 911 call, which Pickering played during the ceremony.

The horn caught the attention of Lauer and Lyga, who were sitting on a deck at a nearby house. The men, both off-duty law enforcement officers, ran to the burning house, went inside, and rescued the five people and two dogs.

Flames were tearing through the house when Lauer and Lyga went in without any protective gear, Pickering said.

Anthony Wahl 

Edgerton Fire Chief Randy Pickering reads from the Heroism Award given to Andrew Lyga during a ceremony at the Edgerton Fire Department to award those involved in the initial response to a house fire in the town of Fulton in the early hours of July 5.

Gould and Oren said they did what they thought anyone else would do. They tell everyone they were just in the right place at the right time, Gould said.

The women didn’t stop at honking the horn. They stuck around and helped comfort the 10- and 11-year-old boys who were in the house.

“I have never seen anyone shake so much in my life,” Gould said of the young boys.

The boys adore Gould and Oren, who have stayed in touch with the family since the event, Stephanie Boeche said. Before leaving the fire station Thursday, Gould and Oren discussed with the Boeches about arranging a time to see the boys before the women leave town for college.

Lauer and Lyga said they were pleasantly surprised to learn the people who sounded the horn were teenagers.

The neighborhood around Meadow Circle is usually quiet, Lauer and Lyga said. The two became friends when Lyga moved in last year.

Anthony Wahl 

State Assembly Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, holds a Heroism Award for Travis Lauer during a ceremony at the Edgerton Fire Department to award those involved in the initial response to a July 5 house fire in the town of Fulton.

Lauer, a Wisconsin State Patrol inspector, said he would like to think his law enforcement training helped him that night, but he thinks most of what drove him was instinct and adrenaline.

Lyga, a Wisconsin Department of Corrections lieutenant, said he was a volunteer firefighter many years ago, which helped him a bit.

The Boeches stayed at the Hampton Inn in Janesville for one month after the fire. They moved into a rental home earlier this week, which Stephanie Boeche said is the next step to a more normal life.

The Boeches are rebuilding their home in the same spot as the last. It will have the same layout and be the same color as the last, Stephanie Boeche said.

The cause of the fire has not officially been determined, but Stephanie Boeche said that discarded fireworks that were still hot or a toy battery in the garbage can were possible culprits.

Thursday was the first night since the fire that the Boeches saw Gould and Oren. There were plenty of hugs and tears.

“It was wonderful,” Stephanie Boeche said. “We needed that, to say thank you.”

Anthony Wahl 

Edgerton Fire Chief Randy Pickering, far left, and state Assembly Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, far right, hold up Meritorious Community Service Awards for teenagers Natalie Gould and Ashlyn Oren as they take a group photo with Mark and Stephanie Boeche.


Crime
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Young Rock County man sent to prison for death of his friend

JANESVILLE

Lukas Christofferson was still alive in the early morning hours of March 31, 2018. He was alone and bleeding.

The car he was riding in had gone off Dorner Road west of Footville at high speed and hit a tree so hard that it burst both windshields.

The driver, Christofferson’s friend Skylair A. Buckham, had left the scene.

Family members and Assistant District Attorney Katherine Buker spoke at Buckham’s sentencing Thursday in Rock County Court.

They suggested Buckham might have saved his friend if Buckham had just called 911. He did not.

A passerby found Christofferson, still alive, at about 2:20 a.m. No one knows how long he had been there, injured, in the dark, Buker said.

The 19-year-old from Stoughton died at a hospital 13 days after the crash.

Buckham, now 22, of 4807 E. Milton-Harmony Townline Road, said he did not remember what happened or how he left the scene. Phone records show around 4:40 a.m., he called his girlfriend several times, and he ended up at her home in Monroe, where deputies found him.

Buckham and Christofferson had been drinking and taking drugs at a party in Brodhead before the crash, said defense attorney Shanna Knueppel.

Tests showed THC, cocaine and alcohol in Buckham’s blood, while Christofferson had THC, fentanyl and alcohol, Knueppel said.

“Neither one of those boys was in any condition to drive that night,” Knueppel said.

Buckham pleaded guilty to homicide by driving with a controlled substance in his blood and hit-and-run resulting in death. A charge of homicide by intoxicated driving was dropped.

Christofferson’s mother, father and sister spoke in court Thursday of the agony and grief they continue to suffer.

Lukas’ mother, Linda Christofferson, said her son was managing a store and was planning to study auto mechanics at Madison College.

A customer who didn’t know the family sent them a letter after his death, telling of a young man who always went the extra mile at work, adding, “He had a spark of life that was exceptional and very endearing. I will miss his sense of humor and dedication to his job. … He had what it took to go far.”

Linda said she has anxiety attacks most days.

“Every time I hear a siren, my heart skips a beat,” she said.

“I hope one day I can forgive you, for myself, because I can’t live with this hatred,” said Lukas’ sister Kathryn.

Bob Christofferson, Lukas’ father, called Buckham’s abandoning of Lukas a cowardly act: “You left your friend to die and focused on yourself. …

“I cannot forgive you at this time,” Bob said, calling for more than 10 years in prison.

“You never gave Lukas a chance,” Bob said. “You should not get one, either.”

Buker said humans’ instinct is probably to save themselves, “but human beings are supposed to do better than that and get past the instinct for self-preservation, to look out for other people. … We should do that even more if the hurt person is our friend, or if we’re the person who caused the hurt.”

Buker argued passionately for punishment. The Department of Corrections recommended six to eight years in prison. Buker called for 10.

Knueppel argued just as passionately for giving her client “a second chance.”

It’s unlikely anything good would come of sending the young man to prison, Knueppel said, noting that prison can increase the chance of more crime.

Lukas’ family members can never get justice for their loss, no matter how long the prison sentence, Knueppel said

“The only chance that something redeeming comes out of this situation is if Skylair has an opportunity to become something more, someone more than he was the night of that accident,” Knueppel said.

Knueppel asked for a year in jail with probation or a short prison stay.

Buckham called Lukas “an amazing friend” who deserves justice. He said every night he asks himself why God took Lukas and not him.

The pain of losing Lukas is “so deep some nights you wish you just won’t wake up,” Buckham said.

Judge Karl Hanson said Knueppel made a strong argument, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that prison would be a negative for Buckham.

But Hanson said he didn’t believe Buckham’s version of events, and he noted the great harm Buckham caused and a need to protect the public. He also cited a need to deter Buckham and the community in general from such behavior.

Hanson imposed a sentence of 10 years in prison plus 10 years of extended supervision. On Buker’s urging, Hanson ruled Buckham must maintain absolute sobriety for the second 10 years.


Obituaries and death notices for Aug. 9, 2019

Donna Maria Brooke

Virginia “Ginny” Carlson

Antonio L. Mataya

Kathleen Mary Rossmiler

Jacob R. Von Seth

Gary Roy Wallem