Wisconsin Republicans, Democrats spar over gun safety course

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) Democrats pushed back Thursday against a Republican measure that would allow Wisconsin high schools to offer gun safety courses, arguing such classes aren't appropriate and could generate fear in classrooms.

The bill calls for the state superintendent to work with the Department of Natural Resources, police or an organization that specializes in firearm safety to develop the curriculum for the course. Schools wouldn't be required to offer the class and live ammunition wouldn't be allowed.

At least eight states had similar laws in place as of the end of 2015, including Arizona, Connecticut and Louisiana, according to the latest information compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in Idaho and North Carolina are currently considering similar bills, although neither measure has gotten a hearing yet.

Wisconsin school districts already have the authority to create such classes on their own, but Rep. Ken Skowronski, one of the Wisconsin measure's authors, said districts are looking for guidance on how to set them up as the popularity of trap and target shooting teams grows.

Dozens of people packed a public hearing on the bill before the Assembly's education committee Thursday. Democrats on the committee blasted the bill, saying students carrying guns to school would upset everyone in the community, from students in the hallways to parents even if live ammunition is banned.

"No teacher, no janitor, no student knows for a fact that gun isn't loaded," Rep. Gary Hebl said. "There are so many problems with this."

Rep. Sondy Pope said nothing prohibits students from hiding ammunition in their bags and loading their guns in the school.

"I don't think this was well-thought out," Pope said.

Skowronski and the bill's co-author, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, said the proposal is designed to help schools' trap and target shooting teams learn more about guns.

"Ensuring student safety for this rapidly growing sport was the incentive for this bill," Skowronski told the committee.

Kleefisch said the bill fits into Wisconsin's heritage of hunting and guns. He added that he's sure there were people in the crowd who want to smash all guns into a "heap of metal" but the courses could encourage children to enter the workforce as gun manufacturers, drawing snickers from the crowd.

Georgia Pantzlaff, a 16-year-old member of the Denmark High School trap shooting team, appeared before the committee wearing medals she had won in competitions. She said kids have a hard time finding the safety courses they need to get on the team.

"I've seen kids who don't know how to handle a gun, and that's when I'm more scared," she said. "Kids don't get a chance to be around guns so they know how to treat a gun properly."

Andy Pantzlaff, Georgia's father and the Denmark trap coach, told the committee course instructors could remove firing pins from their students' guns, use guns with disabled barrels or use replica firearms.

"We do not want children to be scared to go to school," he said. "We would figure out a way to do it."

But opponents insisted the bill would create a gun culture in Wisconsin's schools.

Laurie Asplund, a Madison psychotherapist, told a reporter while she was waiting for her turn to speak that the bill encourages kids to use guns and she's worried about disturbed children being introduced to firearms.

"I work with troubled kids who threaten to kill each other with guns," Asplund said. "This is teaching children who are disturbed how to shoot a gun. It just infuriates me. (The legislators) don't know what they're doing to these kids."

The Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, the Madison school district and the League of Women Voters all have registered in opposition. The Safari Club and Wisconsin FORCE, a group of gun and firing range owners, have registered in support.

The committee wasn't expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

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