Lawmakers in Wisconsin, one of the last states to prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons, approved lifting the ban Tuesday and sent Republican Gov. Scott Walker a measure he is expected to quickly sign into law.
Once Wisconsin's measure takes effect this fall, Illinois will be the only state that bans carrying guns, knives and other concealed weapons.
Supporters of the measure, which passed Wisconsin's GOP-controlled Legislature with bipartisan support, said the fact that none of 48 other states with similar laws have had to repeal them shows opponents' fears about concealed carry are unwarranted.
Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, called the proposal he sponsored "a great first step for citizens of this state to personally be able to protect themselves."
Democrats who opposed the measure said there was no reason to change current law.
"The majority of the public in Wisconsin is not banging down our door insisting that we pass this law," said Rep. Donna Seidel, D-Wausau.
Under the bill, people who obtain a permit and go through training will be allowed to carry concealed weapons in most public buildings, including the state Capitol and city halls, unless there is a sign posted saying they are not permitted. The weapons would be barred anywhere within 1,000 feet of school grounds, police stations, jails and prisons, courthouses, secure mental health facilities, and beyond airport security checkpoints.
Current law would be loosened when it comes to keeping guns in cars. Under the bill, permit holders could keep loaded, uncased guns in their cars. Guns are currently only allowed in cars if they are unloaded and in a case.
The measure cleared the state Senate 25-8 last week, with six Democrats voting in its favor. It passed the Assembly 68-27 on Tuesday, with 11 Democrats and one independent joining 56 Republicans in support. One Republican, Rep. Don Pridemore of Hartford, voted against the measure.
Wisconsin's new law will take effect in either October or November, depending on when Walker signs the measure. Passage of the bill, which was heavily lobbied by the National Rifle Association, came after Republicans were blocked through vetoes in 2003 and 2005 by Walker's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Opponents of the new measure said there aren't enough protections for those who don't want to worry about being in public buildings, hospitals, domestic abuse shelters and other places with people carrying concealed weapons.
"Putting more guns on the streets, particularly in Milwaukee, is the worst thing we can do," said Rep. Leon Young, D-Milwaukee, who pushed for barring guns at neighborhood festivals. His proposal was rejected.
Democratic leaders also argued the bill's training guidelines, which don't require a person to actually fire a weapon to obtain a permit, are not stringent enough.
"Let's just do it right," said Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca. "Let's make sure when we give people this ability, they know what they're doing."
Barca, who said he owns several guns and likely would apply for a permit, said permit-holders should meet more stringent standards like those in neighboring states such as Minnesota, where actually firing a gun is a required part of training. Republicans rejected his proposed changes.
Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, said she agreed meaningful training was necessary but supported what is required under the bill.
"I hope all of us who want to pack a pistol, we all get training," Williams said.
Acceptable training under the bill includes courses offered by the Department of Natural Resources, a law enforcement agency, or organizations that certify firearms instructors
Permits would only be given to Wisconsin residents over age 21 who go through the required training and clear background checks that show they are not felons or otherwise not allowed to carry guns. The permits would cost no more than $50 and be good for five years, with a $25 renewing fee.
The names of those with a license in Wisconsin would be kept in a database maintained by the state Department of Justice. Police could only access the database to confirm someone who is carrying a concealed weapon has a valid permit or investigate whether someone lied when applying for a license. Carrying a gun without a permit would be a misdemeanor.
The names of people who have guns would not be made available under the state's open records law.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm have advocated for increasing the penalties for those who illegally carry guns or purchase them from felons. A separate bill to do that was pending in the Legislature.