Protesters

Anti-gun protesters marched earlier this year near the Marquette University campus in Milwaukee. The three U.S. Senate candidates have widely differing views on gun ownership.

US Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson all say they own guns, but they differ on gun control.

Nicholson and Vukmir are competing in the Aug. 14 Republican US Senate primary. The winner will take on Baldwin, the Democratic incumbent, in November.

Their views on firearm violence were highlighted after the Parkland, Florida school shooting in February. The Texas school shooting in mid-May elevated the issue again.

Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator and nurse, said during a WTMJ interview that she will approach any Second Amendment legislation with skepticism.

She wants to balance the rights for the “vast majority of law abiding citizens who are taking that right very seriously.”

It can be “very dangerous” to take the immediate emotion of a situation like Parkland and “rush in and do anything to affect our Second Amendment right,” she said.

Nicholson, a Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates maintaining the Second Amendment as is because it exists to protect life and liberty, he said during an interview with WTMJ’s Jeff Wagner.

“It’s not there for hunting and recreation, folks,” Nicholson said. “It’s there because our founders understood that … our constitution basically recognizes the value of your life and your individual liberties. The constitution also says you have the ability to protect it.”

For her part, Baldwin has been frustrated with the lack of will to do what she views as common sense things to make access to guns more difficult.

In June 2016, Baldwin took the Senate floor for 30 minutes after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. The incumbent read all 49 names of the dead as she stood next to a board filled with photos of the fallen.

“Thoughts and prayers are important, but they are not enough. We have to act,” Baldwin said on the floor. “I’m not saying that if this bill had been in law a year ago, a month ago, a week ago that this wouldn’t have happened. But our silence is unacceptable.”

In February there was discussion in Congress about strengthening background checks of guy buyers.

Baldwin has long emphasized the need to strengthen background check laws. She said she is one of the 97 percent of people that own guns and support stricter background checks, a statement that was rated mostly true by Politifact Wisconsin.

That majority support expanded, universal background checks to close the gun-show loophole and tighten internet gun purchases, Baldwin said.

Vukmir doesn’t believe in universal background checks.

“If I were to sell my gun to you, I’m going to be very cautious about who I’m selling a gun to because I know that you’re a stable person and I’m not going to give it to someone who I don’t think is stable,” Vukmir said during a WTMJ interview.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that Vukmir said at an event that she was open to changes on background checks especially as it pertains to people with mental illness, as long as gun rights are protected.

Nicholson was not in attendance at that event but responded through his campaign spokesman, Brandon Moody.

Moody said that “sensible steps to improve background checks should definitely be on the table” but did not say what changes he would support, the AP story said.

Nicholson has alluded to more specifics about his gun control views in other interviews.

On “Upfront with Mike Gousha,” Nicholson proposed a combined state and federal task force to try to prevent mass shootings.

“Look at Florida. The FBI was involved to some degree…The individual ran through a background check. People in his life knew he had problems and presented a threat,” Nicholson said.

He added: “I can see right now, if these multiple pieces of information came to a uniform center and had actually been put together, this individual probably would have been stopped earlier.”

Baldwin’s views and votes

Recent school safety legislation to reignite a bipartisan $50 million program to help prevent school threats by increasing security and training was passed in March. The STOP School Violence Act of 2018 received support from both Democrats and Republicans — including Baldwin who co-sponsored the bill.

NPR recently released an analysis about how current Congress members vote on gun control.

On every major bill since 2005 Baldwin voted to “add gun restrictions” or “or against a measure loosening restrictions.”

On the Firearms Restriction Act, that protects firearm manufacturers from being sued for crimes committed with firearms they manufactured, Baldwin voted nay in 2005.

In 2016, she co-sponsored a bill that would prevent the sale of firearms to those on the terrorist watch list. The bill was never passed.

In a March 21, 2018 letter Baldwin pleaded that gun violence be treated like a public health issue.

“As Senators, it is our responsibility to address gun violence like the public health crisis that it is, investigate the causes of these deadly acts of violence and hatred, and make policy changes to ensure that they no longer happen,” Baldwin wrote.

Vukmir sees it in a different light. After the Columbine shooting in 1999, Vukmir wrote in a blog post that school shootings can be blamed on school programs “coddling teens.”

“Our national obsession with the feelings of teenagers has played an enormous but heretofore unrecognized role in what is transpiring nationwide,” Vukmir wrote. “Perhaps they (schools) could save money and lives by teaching kids an old-fashioned lesson: life isn’t always easy. There will be rough times in high school and beyond. The time to get used to it is now.”

She said that if the approach to education and attitudes weren’t changed, she feared another Columbine would be “inevitable.”

According to a Feb. 21, 2018 article by the Washington Examiner, Vukmir has not backed down on her criticism about the self-esteem movement, but acknowledges other factors.

“I’m very cognizant as a healthcare professional that we have to do a better job identifying these kids who are troubled and not be afraid to speak out,” Vukmir said.

In 2008, the National Rifle Association gave Vukmir a lifetime A+ rating. Baldwin has received F grades from the NRA.

In spring 2018 the US Senate discussed whether teachers should carry firearms in the classroom.

Baldwin is vehemently against it. She told the Associated Press that arming teachers “could have catastrophic, unintended consequences.”

On the other hand, Vukmir and Nicholson both say it could be a good idea. The two agree it should be put in place at local schools’ discretion.

Vukmir described school children as “sitting ducks” so she would support having people on school grounds that are trained to be armed.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Nicholson’s spokesman Moody said that to protect students, allowing some teachers who are trained and licensed to carry might be warranted

“When and wherever possible, schools should be safeguarded by armed and professionally trained safety professionals,” Moody said.

This story was part of a series of stories made available by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and written by Marquette University journalism students under the supervision of Dave Umhoefer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Umhoefer teaches advanced journalism at Marquette and is director of the university’s O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism program.

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