It Was the Coalition’s Finest Moment

Marc Herstand

By Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW, 

Following the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the students at the high school who lived through the shooting began organizing what began a nation-wide campaign for increased gun violence prevention legislation.  They achieved some major successes in Florida, which passed, among other bills, an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), also known as Red Flag legislation.  Since the mass shooting, the number of states passing ERPO bills has increased to 17.

At the beginning of the 2019 legislative session, I decided to organize a coalition to try to pass a similar bill in Wisconsin.  I was hoping that we might have reached a tipping point in our country and state that would lead to some important gun violence prevention legislations, despite a Republican legislature.

The organizations I contacted were eager to get involved.  NAMI Wisconsin, Mental Health America-Wisconsin, WAVE (Wisconsin Anti-violence Education Fund), MomSense and Jean Papalia, a retired Madison police officer and expert on gun violence prevention, all joined the coalition.  We began our efforts to try to recruit a Republican State Senator and Representative to serve as the lead on the bill.  Our coalition has powerful advocates!  Mental Health America-Wisconsin’s representative was an attorney who understood the ins and outs of legal issues surrounding this bill and had a powerful personal story of the suicide of his father in law.  The Government Relations Director at NAMI, a former NASW WI intern, had powerful local groups around the state that could help the effort and was a good lobbyist and public speaker.  WAVE is the leading anti-gun violence group in Wisconsin, with a massive grass roots network statewide, national ties, and an expert on gun legislation.  Our MomSense representative had connections with MomSense members statewide and had a powerful personal story of her father’s suicide.  Our retired police officer understood the issue from a police perspective, worked on a federal project studying gun deaths in Wisconsin and worked on another project in Dane County with gun stores who agreed to temporarily store guns for individuals at risk of harm to themselves or others.

Therefore, to our lobbying visits, we brought both facts and personal stories-a powerful combination.  In our initial visits with Republican legislators, we were hopeful, as the legislators asked many questions and did not flat out reject our request.  Several months into our efforts we learned that Wisconsin Speaker Robin Voss was appointing a Task Force on Suicide Prevention and one of the key Republicans we approached on this bill was made the Chair.  She did not want to do anything until after the Task Force was done with its hearings and research.  Concerned that this could be a delaying tactic, we decided to use the Task Force structure to promote the bill.  We met with every member of the Task Force and tried to recruit speakers at the five statewide hearings to promote ERPO.

The last hearing of the Task Force was held in Milwaukee on September 9th.  The Coalition went all out in organizing speakers at this hearing.  Among the speakers promoting ERPO were two Doctors, WAVE, NAMI Wisconsin, NASW-WI, Mental Health America-Wisconsin, several MomSense representatives, a representative from the Brady Campaign and a number of family members of children who committed suicide.  Our message came across loud and clear from the beginning to the end of the hearing.  Republican legislators, who would normally never hear such testimony because Republican committee chairs have refused to hold hearings on gun bills, listened to the four hours of testimony, mostly on ERPO.  One of the Republican legislators followed our MomSense representative out of the room and talked with her extensively.  Our MomSense representative’s father, who committed suicide, was a farmer, like this Republican representative. This Representative communicated privately that he thought the bill could be helpful.

After the hearing, the committee members were asked by their Chair to reflect on the five hearings that had been held.  Although all the Democrats stated that they needed to include ERPO in their legislation, only one of the Republicans mentioned guns, and he said, “guns are not the answer”.  The other Republicans avoided the topic.

At the time that I am writing this article, it is up in the air whether or not ERPO will be included in the package of bills promoted by the Task Force.  However, even if we don’t pass the ERPO bill this session, the work of our coalition has been remarkable and we have “moved the needle” on this bill.  I believe that the Republicans attending the last hearing of the Task Force were impacted by the testimony and that if not now, some day, they will support some type of Red Flag legislation. 

As Barack Obama used to say, to work for social change, you all have to work hard and push hard with your shoulder on the wheel.  At some point, all the efforts will cause the wheel to move and you will achieve success.  I am looking forward to that day in Wisconsin, when we enact meaningful gun violence prevention legislation and save lives from suicide and mass shootings.