Hubert Hoffman wears his gun on his belt, for all the world to see. At home, work, the grocery store — everywhere the law allows — his .45-caliber semi-automatic is at his side.
Hoffman, of Onalaska, is vice president of Wisconsin Carry, a two-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and expanding gun rights. Despite his public display of arms, he does not consider himself a gun enthusiast.
"It's not so much about the gun as it is the rights," he said.
He'd prefer to carry it inside his coat, but Wisconsin law forbids concealed weapons — for now.
In the eyes of gun rights proponents like Hoffman, Wisconsin is a decade behind the rest of the nation. But that might soon change.
"It's definitely a pro-gun Legislature," said Nik Clark, president of Wisconsin Carry.
Guns are intrinsic to Wisconsin culture, but even with its rich heritage of hunting, the state remains one of the most restrictive when it comes to gun rights. Wisconsin is one of only two states that do not allow the concealed carry of firearms.
But with Republicans in control of both legislative chambers and the governor's mansion, that's expected to soon change. The question is what, if anything, the state will do to keep guns out of the hands of unstable people and ensure that those who do go armed know how to handle their weapons.
People are also reading…
Democrats and Republicans agree that a concealed carry law will pass the Legislature this session — and unlike the past two times, former Gov. Jim Doyle won't be around to veto it.
Gov. Scott Walker said this week he expects a concealed carry bill to emerge as early as spring — after the Legislature tackles more pressing issues like job growth and the budget — and that he will sign it.
"You're going to see a concealed carry bill pass the Legislature, I have no doubt," said Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau. "The question is what kind of bill it's going to be."
That's troubling to Jeri Bonavia, executive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which opposes any legislation to allow concealed carry on the grounds it will lead to increased danger for individuals and the public.
"We really don't believe that more people carrying guns in public is beneficial in any way," she said. "In fact, we think it's harmful."
Those on both sides of the issue say the shooting last weekend in Arizona that left six people dead and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition with a bullet wound to her head will likely not change the debate in Wisconsin.
If anything, it only further polarizes the issue, Clark said: Anti-gun people will see it as justification for firearm restrictions while gun rights proponents will argue it's cause for more armed citizens.
Because Wisconsin allows open carry without a permit, Bonavia says it's not that different from Arizona, where suspect Jared Loughner, charged with murder and attempted assassination of a member of Congress, was able to buy and legally carry the semi-automatic pistol used in the Jan. 8 shooting.
Clark argues that laws won't stop deranged people from committing gun crimes.
"If you're going to shoot up a crowd of people, there's not a lot of ways to prevent that from a legislative standpoint," he said.
Hoffman said, "The crazy people are going to get the guns if they want."
Screening for mental health
Rep. Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat whose parents were shot and killed 18 years ago during a robbery of their suburban Chicago restaurant, does not support expanding gun rights but is adamant that any concealed carry bill passed include additional screening for mental illness.
"Making sure we keep weapons out of unstable people's hands is imperative," she said.
Current law bars anyone who's been involuntarily committed by a judge to a mental institution from having a gun - but not anyone held temporarily under the state's emergency detention provision.
Shilling would like a provision included to flag anyone with a pattern of such episodes. Yet she concedes it's difficult to talk about limiting gun rights.
"It is toxic when we start talking about this. People have very strong opinions," she said. "It is tough to talk about it, but we need to keep the guns out of inappropriate hands."
Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse voted for the concealed carry bill approved by the Legislature but vetoed by Doyle in 2005. A spokeswoman said Kapanke would not be available this week to discuss gun legislation, and he did not respond to subsequent phone messages.
State and federal law requires instant background checks for any firearm sale by a licensed dealer. Those with felony records or who have been involuntarily committed for treatment of mental illness, chemical dependency or mental disability are prohibited from possessing guns.
Opponents of concealed carry say mental illness is too narrowly defined under current laws, and many mental health records aren't reported to the national database used for background checks. Of the 820,888 firearm denials issued by the FBI since 1998, fewer than 1 percent were because of mental illness.
And there's no background check required for sales between individuals. Bonavia cites a U.S. Department of Justice study that found fewer than 60 percent of gun purchases were made from federally licensed dealers.
Even those in favor of tighter restrictions for the mentally ill admit it's all but impossible to craft a law to keep guns out of the hands of anyone with a mental illness.
"You can't legislate for every possible situation," Danou said.
Rights, responsibility, and training
La Crosse Police Chief Ed Kondracki declined to comment on the issue, while La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson said he wouldn't comment until seeing specific legislation.
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association is neutral on concealed carry but hopes to be part of discussions about any new law, executive director Jim Palmer II said.
"Our paramount concern is if it's going to be law, it's done in the safest way possible," he said.
The organization represents about 11,000 officers who remain divided on the issue. Police in rural areas embrace firearms as part of the state's hunting culture and are more supportive of the law. Those in urban areas tend to oppose a concealed carry law.
Wisconsin sheriffs objected to previous concealed carry bills that put the burden of permitting on them.
Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said she might support a bill that included "a strong training component." To that end, she met this week with firearm safety trainers from Minnesota.
"The most important thing is to learn when not to shoot," she said.
Danou, a former Onalaska police officer, said he would likely vote for a concealed carry bill — provided it includes standards for safety training.
"Shooting at a paper target is not the same as real life," he said. "In a high-stress situation, that training kicks in. That is going to be such a critical element. You have to train regularly and frequently."
It's part of the challenge of balancing freedoms and protections.
"Your right to carry a firearm doesn't trump the right of someone else to be safe," Danou said. "It's a right, but it's also a responsibility. ... If you're going to take the responsibility, I think you have a level of obligation to your community to handle that weapon in a safe way."
Wisconsin Carry supports a law allowing anyone eligible to own a gun to carry it without a permit.
Clark points to Arizona, which recently joined Vermont and Alaska as the first states to allow unrestricted concealed weapons.
"Wisconsin's been a decade behind the times because of Doyle," he said. "Rather than going toward where the rest of the country was, let's go where the country's going."
He notes that many residents now carry firearms openly without a permit. Hoffman illustrates the point by pulling his coat over the gun on his belt.
"I don't understand why the coat requires a permit," he said.
Bonavia says current law is already too lax, as there are no additional background checks or training required to carry a loaded gun - openly - in public.
"It's absurd that absolutely no requirements are made of people carrying guns in public," she said.
Although the Wisconsin Republican Party this year struck from its platform language supporting permitted carry rights, Walker indicated Thursday he expects to sign a bill similar to ones Doyle vetoed - which require a permit, as in Minnesota.
"The facts tend to show that across the country laws — particularly like the one in Minnesota — have had a positive impact," the governor said, "and the problems that some have raised as concerns ... in Wisconsin just haven't materialized."