By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — From conceal carry to the so-called "castle doctrine law," 2011 has been a banner year for the National Rifle Association in Wisconsin legislation.
And it all came relatively cheaply for the definitive Second Amendment lobbying group with deep grassroots in the Badger State.
On Nov. 1, Wisconsin became the 49th state to allow those with the proper permit to carry concealed weapons.
Last week, in the closing days of the fall legislative session, lawmakers passed the “castle doctrine,” giving legal protection for property owners who use deadly force against an intruder.
On Friday, Gov. Scott Walker signed Senate Bill 228, which allows hunters to place their loaded weapons in or on their vehicles as long as the vehicle is stationary, and gives people the right to transport unloaded weapons that aren’t fully encased.
And on Monday, a Republican-led legislative committee suspended a provision requiring a four-hour training course for anyone applying for a concealed carry permit.
“I agree that we have had a very good year, but I think it’s been a long time in coming,” said John Nass, president of Wi-FORCE, the Wisconsin organization affiliated with the NRA. “I think it’s been something that the citizens of Wisconsin have been denied their rights for many, many years.”
Political experts say the story of the NRA’s success is one of persistence, consistency, grassroots motivation and timing.
It’s a story about money.
And it's a story about how things get done in Madison.
Through the first six months of the year,the NRA spent 414 hours and $66,658 lobbying lawmakers on behalf of its membership, according to the Government Accountability Board, which will release its report on the remainder of 2011 early next year.
By contrast, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO union was the highest spender during that period, spending $2.3 million on lobbying during the height of the battle over changes to collective- bargaining powers for public employees.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent the most hours of any lobby group during the first half of the year, 10,631.
The NRA didn't crack the top 10 in either instance.
The amount the NRA spent on lobbying this year pales in comparison to what it spent on the real battleground — the 2010 elections.
Concealed-carry advocates have been pushing for that law since the 1990s, with the Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association forming a political action committee in 2001 to funnel money to like-minded candidates.
The veto pen of former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, however, stymied those efforts.
When Doyle opted not to seek re-election and the 2008 groundswell of support for Democratic candidates turned to the GOP, the NRA saw — and took — its chance.
The NRA’s Political Victory Fund political action committee, or PAC, made multiple contributions in support of Walker, including a $142,118 ad buy in October 2010.
The PAC also contributed to Republican legislative candidates, throwing support behind candidates, such as GOP Sens. Terry Moulton and Leah Vukmir, who defeated Democratic incumbents. Moulton and Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany, who also received NRA campaign support, sponsored the bill ending the Earn-a-Buck program, which Walker signed last week. Moulton also sponsored the bill to ease restrictions on transporting firearms.
“It’s true to say that the big payoff is the election,” said John Rink, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “The reason that lobbying works is because it is connected to electoral success, and people in office recognize that.
“Of course, there’s a lot of ebb and flow in politics,” Rink said. “Sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down.”
Politics being a zero-sum game, the NRA’s bumper crop of legislation is other people’s blight, particularly those interested in gun control.
“The Governor and Legislature feel good about putting the public’s safety at risk because of the powerful financial interests of the gun lobby,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Eyon Biddle Sr., said in a statement. “I would like to congratulate them for that. They have ignored democracy, jobs, access to quality affordable health care, voting rights, felons rights, human rights, and the ability to collectively bargain … all for gun rights.”
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald’s office did not immediately respond Tuesday to request for details about the NRA’s lobbying efforts.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokesman Andrew Welhouse referred questions to the senator’s chief of staff, who was not in the office Tuesday.
But Rink said one of the NRA’s greatest strengths is its persistence and consistency, led by a motivated membership that makes its voice heard even when the government is being run by lawmakers more interested in gun control than easing restrictions.
“I think it’s very important to be there all the time,” he said. “As soon as you’re known to be absent, it’s sort of like, ‘Game Over,’ in a sense.”
That might explain why, even in a year marked by systemic changes to collective-bargaining powers for the state’s public union employees, unions have spent more time and money on lobbying than most other groups.