On June 24, the Wisconsin State Assembly sent Right-to-Carry legislation to Gov. Scott Walker, who signed the law. This victory represents a decade of work by the NRA and pro-gun activists to restore the right to self-defense for the people of Wisconsin. When the new law goes into effect in November, Wisconsin will be the 41st Right-to-Carry state and the 49th state with some means of legal carry—leaving Illinois as the only remaining state to completely deny the right to carry firearms for protection outside citizens’ homes or places of business.
The passage of Right-to-Carry legislation in Wisconsin also ends years of confusion surrounding the protections afforded by the state constitution. As amended in 1998 by Wisconsin voters, the state constitution reads “The people have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose.” The courts have offered diverging opinions that left gun owners unsure of when and where they could carry concealed firearms.
For example, in the 2003 case of State vs. Hamdan, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a Milwaukee grocery store owner, who had been the victim of past robberies, could raise the state constitution’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms as a defense against charges of illegally carrying a concealed firearm. In its opinion, the court pressed the legislature to address the conflict between the constitution and the concealed carry statute, writing, “We urge the legislature to…consider the possibility of a licensing or permit system for persons who have a good reason to carry a concealed weapon.”
But three years later, in the case of State vs. Fisher, the same court rejected a similar argument by a tavern owner who carried a handgun in the console of his vehicle. The court ruled that his “interest in exercising his right to keep and bear arms for purposes of security by carrying a concealed weapon in his vehicle does not substantially outweigh the state’s interest in prohibiting him from carrying a concealed weapon in his vehicle.”
Cases like these, combined with the Wisconsin legislature’s failure to override repeated vetoes of Right-to-Carry bills by then-Gov. Jim Doyle (by the narrowest of margins, thanks to partisan arm-twisting) left Wisconsinites in an impossible situation. Every individual was forced to predict whether a judge might agree with his or her particular need to carry a gun for self-defense.
Confusing legal situations like these only serve to ensnare the otherwise law-abiding and undermine confidence in the rule of law. As James Madison wisely observed in Federalist No. 62, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”
Fortunately, a political solution prevailed in Wisconsin. Gun owners—with air support from NRA Political Victory Fund radio and TV ads—took to the polls and replaced retiring Gov. Doyle, at long last, with pro-gun Gov. Walker, paving the way for overwhelming bipartisan enactment of Right-to-Carry legislation.
Unfortunately, the political outlook is less rosy in Illinois, where Chicago politicians dominate the legislature. That’s why the NRA is taking the state to federal court. The lead plaintiff is Mary Shepard, who was brutally beaten at the church where she works as treasurer. Mrs. Shepard is licensed to carry in two other states, but—due to Illinois law—was unarmed at the time of the attack. (Joining Mrs. Shepard is the Illinois State Rifle Association, the NRA’s state affiliate.)
Illinois isn’t the only place where gun owners, with NRA support, are turning to the courts to correct restrictive laws and policies on concealed carry. We’re supporting cases on the issue from California to Texas to Maryland.
Unfortunately, the courts work slowly. We hope legislators in Illinois and elsewhere, rather than continuing their resistance to citizens’ rights, choose to learn from Wisconsin’s experience and change the law. One thing is clear: No matter how long it takes, whether through the courts or the legislature, the NRA will not rest until Americans’ right to carry firearms for self-protection is respected from coast to coast.