In late October, Saturday Night Live spoofed the second presidential debate, in which Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney fielded questions from a town hall audience. One question: "I was wondering what either of you would do to keep dangerous assault weapons such as AK-47s off the street?"
Mock Mitt answered first: "Ah, nothing." Bogus Barack backed him up: "I would also do nothing."
The exchange, a condensed take on the candidates' actual noncommittal responses to a similar question, drew derisive laughter from the SNL crowd. The lack of political will on the issue of gun violence had become, in some people's eyes, a national joke.
And then a gunman with an assault rifle murdered 26 people, mostly little children, at an elementary school in Connecticut. This atrocity, on top of other recent carnage, including two mass shootings in Wisconsin, is seen as opening the door to new gun laws.
"Timing is everything in politics and I think the timing is ripe right now," says state Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison). He favors a state ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, an end to allowing concealed weapons in the state Capitol and other public buildings, and closing the "loophole" that exempts gun shows and private dealers from running background checks.
The man who killed three people and wounded four others at a Brookfield spa in October could not legally buy a gun because his wife, one of his victims, had a domestic abuse restraining order against him. But he avoided a background check by going to a private seller.
A group of Democratic lawmakers has pledged to introduce new state gun controls. State Rep. Leon Young (D-Milwaukee) supports their cause.
"We just can't continue on the same path," says Young, a former Milwaukee police officer. "On a weekly basis in my district, people are being shot, people are being killed."
But the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups remain powerful players. The NRA Political Victory Fund, a political action committee, has doled out $939,000 on Wisconsin political campaigns since mid-2008, state records show. This includes independent expenditures of nearly $168,000 in support of Gov. Scott Walker, on top of a $10,000 direct contribution.
The NRA and Wisconsin Gun Owners Inc., a state-based group, also spent more than $200,000 on lobbying in 2011 alone.
Walker has declined to back new state bans on weapons or ammunition or tighter gun-sale rules. But he does want the state to consider arming school officials, with appropriate training -- a stance similar to that of the NRA, which has called for armed guards at every school in America.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), a cosponsor of the state's concealed carry law, enacted in 2011, doesn't think the state's guns laws will change -- nor, in his view, should they.
"I think the type of people who introduce this legislation are the type of people who would vote for any anti-gun legislation over the last 10 years," Grothman says. "They are just using this" -- the Connecticut massacre -- "as an excuse."
Grothman argues that the nation's murder rate has fallen over the past two decades, even though the number of guns has risen. He notes that Connecticut's tougher gun laws didn't keep the shooting from happening there, with legally acquired weapons. And he speculates that gun shows account for only "a tiny fraction" of illicit sales.
Jeri Bonavia of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, a nonprofit advocacy group, says such attitudes can't withstand the rising tide of public support for modest and sensible new gun laws: "There is not going to be a tolerance for maintaining the status quo."
That's open to debate, but it does seem as though something has changed. When Saturday Night Live recently reran its show with the fake town hall debate, the exchange about gun control was edited out.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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