By Jessica McBride Special to Published Jun 10, 2015 at 12:06 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

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Seriously, I thought. Some Democrats don’t want to crack down on armed felons? From various media accounts, that seemed to be how the debate in the state legislature was headed when it came to a new bill issuing mandatory minimum sentences for felons who possess firearms. After all, it made its way out of committee only 6-3, on a party-line vote (Republicans in favor).

But then I watched the debate Tuesday when the bill made it out of the full Assembly on a voice vote (meaning roll call is not taken). And I have to say that those voices seemed to be in the minority.

I now feel the bill could serve as a model of sorts for how partisan bickering can be set aside in the public interest. Even some of those voicing concerns ended up saying it was a good first step. After all, somewhere between some Democrats’ kneejerk "we must stop incarcerating people, even felons with guns" supposed "solution" to crime, and some Republicans’ "don’t touch anyone’s guns, ever," there’s got to be a middle ground (yes, those standpoints are clichés, but sometimes they are apt).

State Reps. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, and Joel Kleefisch, a Republican from Oconomowoc, found one of those rare common sense places when they proposed creating the mandatory minimum sentences for felons who possess firearms. You read that right: A Milwaukee Democrat and an Oconomowoc Republican came together on a gun issue and managed to gain the support of a majority of others in the Assembly from both parties despite the earlier dissent. That’s pretty remarkable in our polarized times.

Johnson gave a passionate speech on the Assembly floor about attending the funerals of young victims of gun violence, mentioning the names of Milwaukee youngsters like Sierra Guyton and Laylah Petersen. In some areas of the state, she noted, when you hear gunfire, it’s likely to be a deer at the other end of the barrel.

"In some communities like mine, you know it’s another human life on the other side of the barrel," she said, adding that the closest the young people who have died "will get to the Capitol is the fact I read their name."

It was moving, and it was refreshing. A Republican and a Democrat, a legislator from Waukesha and a legislator from Milwaukee, coming together to propose a common-sense bill on gun crime. How often do you see that? They both deserve recognition for profiles in courage. 

But how controversial should this be, really? Who could possibly NOT support ensuring we get more felons with guns off the streets longer, especially with all of the mayhem on the nightly news?

Early on, media accounts contained such bizarre Democratic hesitation. State Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Democrat, was quoted in one story as saying he opposed the Johnson/Kleefisch bill because he was worried it would increase costs and restrict judges’ discretion. The head of the ACLU spoke out against the proposal in the media. He was worried it would give prosecutors more power. Over armed felons? Good. 

In an earlier statement reprinted by local TV, Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee), went on and on about incarceration rates, saying "more criminal penalties and more incarceration in the form of mandatory minimum penalties might not be the answer." He was apparently worried about "diminished job prospects" for armed felons. He’s right that the state’s high incarceration rates are concerning, but scaling back incarceration for the armed felon population is hardly the right place to start when it comes to tackling that issue.

The same TV story said that Johnson had support from only a "handful of Democrats" and that the bill had divided legislative Democrats (I was waiting for the angry press conference from Mayor Barrett, slamming Democrats in Madison over gun legislation … oh, never mind).

Some opponents of the bill say it won’t stop felons from carrying guns anyway. Sure it will. You can’t carry a gun when you’re in prison, and the bill mandates between three to five years behind bars depending on the felony. Sure, you’d have to carry the gun to get there again, but it’s pretty hard to shoot people once you’re in a cell.

I understand that high rates of incarceration help wreck neighborhoods, families and economic recovery. But so does crime. 

Thankfully, these Democratic views ended up the minority, in part because of the passionate voices of people like Johnson.

Republicans have their own issues when it comes to gun legislation, of course. I don’t think it shows much common sense, either, that habitual misdemeanants can qualify for concealed carry permits in Wisconsin, that it’s not a felony to repeatedly carry a gun unlawfully if you’re a misdemeanant or that it’s not a more serious offense to engage in straw purchasing. Where are those bills?

Instead, the Republicans on Tuesday eliminated background checks for lawful purchasers. I’m not bothered at all by this elimination because I’m worried about armed criminals like the aforementioned felons, not lawful purchasers who passed background checks. But it also doesn’t strike me that concern about people having to wait for legal guns surpasses concern about weak penalties for criminals with guns (see above list of other common sense measures not introduced that target illegal carriers or buyers).

I am also not bothered by the measure to let retired cops carry guns in schools, which also passed. That’s because, again, I am not worried about law-abiding folks with weapons. But once again, this doesn’t strike me as a pressing priority compared to the other list.

The way to navigate logically through the emotional "gun issue" minefield seems obvious: Focus the hammer on the people who carry guns illegally and especially those who have criminal histories. Period. That’s one reason I support concealed carry. Again, I am not worried about trained, law-abiding people.

The Johnson/Kleefisch bill got it right. But there’s more to do.

This bill is not a panacea. It’s not going to "solve" crime. But it makes sense. It will do something.

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.