MILWAUKEE – Wisconsin residents who want to carry a concealed handgun legally need to be trained first -- but the state's new law could allow applicants to satisfy that requirement without ever touching a gun.
The concealed-carry measure became law when Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed it Friday. A few minor parts take effect right away but most aspects don't go into effect until November.
The law, which now leaves Illinois as the only state without some sort of concealed-carry measure, allows about a half-dozen ways for a concealed-carry applicant to meet the training requirement and qualify for a permit.
One is to complete a firearms safety course conducted by a certified firearms instructor. Because the law doesn't specify what constitutes a safety course, someone could sit through an online training course -- including one that wasn't designed for concealed-carry purposes.
For example, a Maryland agency helped put together a 30-minute online video that discusses firearm use, safety rules, and cleaning and maintenance. The free video was created about 10 years ago after the state passed a law mandating that people take a safety class before buying a firearm, said Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police who appeared in an early version of the video.
He said he'd be surprised if anyone in Wisconsin used the video to satisfy the concealed-carry training requirement.
The video's "intent was for individuals in Maryland," he said. "There was no expectation that anyone outside Maryland would be using this to certify themselves."
However, in a chat room for gun enthusiasts, several people shared a link to the Maryland video and said it would satisfy Wisconsin's requirement.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which will issue concealed-carry licenses, said it was too early to say whether online training would meet the state's standards.
"Like everyone else, we are trying to understand what the law means and will be issuing more information and FAQs (frequently asked questions) as we are able to do so," DOJ spokesman Bill Cosh said.
A Walker spokesman said the governor's office would wait to see what the Justice Department said before commenting.
Under Wisconsin's law, people who go through training and obtain a permit will be allowed to carry concealed handguns, knives and stun guns in most public buildings, including city halls, unless there is a sign posted saying they are not permitted. The law doesn't apply to shotguns or rifles.
Even though the law doesn't go into effect for more than three months, gun instructors say their training classes have been filling up fast.
Roger Cross, 64, a retired Marine from the Town of West Bend, said he'll teach two classes next month with 22 students each. Each class filled up early, he said, reflecting the state's pent-up demand for concealed carry.
His classes cost $150 and feature about six hours of discussions, touching on how to avoid conflict and explaining what the new law does and doesn't allow. He also gives his students about 90 minutes on a gun range, saying it's important to give them hands-on experience.
However, not everyone agrees that a person has to physically fire a gun to be adequately trained.
Eric Korn runs American Firearms Training, a website based in Harrisonburg, Va. that offers online gun training. Korn, 33, said his 90-minute video offers in-depth information about pistol proficiency, safety, cleaning, storage and other issues.
"According to the Second Amendment, there should not be any type of training requirement in order to carry firearm," he said. "That said, we feel our class is a very good compromise between practical hands-on training and no training at all."
He acknowledged that individuals are better prepared when their training includes time at a shooting range, but said the law was about the civil right to defend oneself, a right that's separate from the question of proficiency.
But some people were unsettled by the idea of training that didn't involve hands-on practice.
"I strongly believe someone should know how to use a weapon correctly if they're going to carry it," said Bryon Fennig, 55, who works at a Muskego gun club.
During debate of the bill, Democratic leaders in the state Assembly argued in vain for stiffer training guidelines. Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said permit-holders should meet more stringent standards like those in neighboring states such as Minnesota, where firing a gun is a required part of training.
"Let's just do it right," Barca said. "Let's make sure when we give people this ability, they know what they're doing."
Republicans rejected his proposed changes.
While Barca noted that he owns several guns and likely would apply for a permit, Walker declined to say whether he would do so.
"I haven't thought about it from my own personal standpoint," Walker said. He added that he owns a rifle and a shotgun.