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MADISON (AP) — Milwaukee’s police chief said today he’ll go on telling his officers to take down anyone with a firearm despite Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s finding that people can carry guns openly if they do it peacefully.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said he’ll continue to tell officers they can’t assume people are carrying guns legally in a city that has seen nearly 200 homicides in the past two years.
“My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we’ll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it,” Flynn said. “Maybe I’ll end up with a protest of cowboys. In the meantime, I’ve got serious offenders with access to handguns. It’s irresponsible to send a message to them that if they just carry it openly no one can bother them.”
State Justice Department spokesman Kevin St. John declined to comment.
Wisconsin is one of 29 states that allow people to openly carry a firearm without a permit. It’s one of two states that ban concealed weapons.
Flynn’s comments came as gun control advocates and state lawmakers derided Van Hollen’s ruling.
“The idea of people ... openly carrying guns strikes me as somewhere between bonkers and totally ridiculous and stupid,” said state Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee.
Van Hollen, a Republican, issued a memo Monday explaining how disorderly conduct overlaps with the constitutional right to bear arms. Van Hollen concluded citizens have a constitutional right to openly carry firearms, and disorderly conduct charges depend on the circumstances.
OpenCarry.org, a gun advocacy Web site, issued a statement saying the finding was “spot on.” The Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association said the memo clearly finds people can bear arms in an orderly manner.
But Oregon, Wis., Police Chief Doug Pettit said the memo doesn’t provide much direction for police, who already know open carry is legal in Wisconsin and disorderly conduct is a case-by-case judgment call.
“I don’t know if the memo clarifies anything, other than it’s not an automatic disorderly conduct charge,” Pettit said. “Clearly, I think law enforcement, like anything else, will have to use their discretion.”
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said open carry cases have rarely come up, but he’d want to know why someone has chosen to carry a gun before making a charging decision.
“Police will be quick to ask you, ’Why do you have a gun with you? Is somebody stalking you?’ Those are going to be fair inquiries,” he said. “We’d be particularly concerned if someone was openly possessing a gun in the context of an ongoing dispute or feud.”
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said the memo just muddies things. Police still aren’t clear on what might constitute disorderly conduct, he said.
“How we approach a person with a gun, I can tell you right now, isn’t going to change. As far as a law enforcement person is concerned, you just don’t walk up to a person with a gun and say ’excuse me, sir,“’ Clarke said. “On the ground, give up. Get that gun under control and then we’ll figure out what we got here.”
Gov. Jim Doyle, a former attorney general, believes local communities should be allowed to create their own gun ordinances, spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner said. A 1995 law bars municipalities from enacting stiffer ordinances than state statutes, but carrying a rifle during hunting season is different from walking around Milwaukee with a gun on your hip, Sensenbrenner said.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Van Hollen’s memo underscores the nation’s weak gun laws. The Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, a statewide organization dedicated to ending gun violence, estimates guns kill about 450 people in the state each year.
“A lot of people who get guns and carry guns don’t always understand the responsibility and risk that goes with gun ownership,” Helmke said. “People get drunk, people get angry, people make mistakes. More guns generally mean more violence.”
State Rep. Leon Young, D-Milwaukee, a former police officer, said he was shocked by Van Hollen’s memo. He said he planned to look into drafting legislation to ban open carry.
“It’s just a bad idea. We’ve just had too many incidents of gun violence,” Young said.
Flynn, Milwaukee’s police chief, said the opinion was clearly drafted in the safety of the Justice Department’s offices, not on Milwaukee’s streets.
“From an officer’s safety point of view and a public point of view,” he said, “we’re not going to start with the assumption that someone displaying a handgun is doing it lawfully.”