MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans who continue to largely dismiss Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' call to pass gun safety legislation introduced a series of bills Tuesday designed to bolster mental health services in the state, a move they said was not in response to recent mass shootings.
Evers has called for the GOP-controlled Legislature to pass universal background checks and a "red flag" law that would establish a process to take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others. But Republican legislative leaders have instead emphasized the need to improve mental health services.
"If I did have the answer, or if any other legislator had a clear answer to this issue, we would have already implemented it," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, adding that Congress should play a role. "It's frustrating, I think, because every time one of these incidents happened we kind of wring our hands and say 'What can we do?'"
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat, said lawmakers should do "everything possible while respecting Second Amendment rights" when it comes to combating gun violence. He said Democrats will introduce universal background check and "red flag" bills and hope to receive bipartisan support.
"I don't think anybody in our country right now can ignore gun violence and mass shootings," Hintz said.
Fitzgerald told reporters he didn't support a universal background check law on gun sales because that would mean registering firearm sales. He said "there is always going to be a constituency who vote Republican and ... they are going to be opposed to it."
However, he said he would be open to expanding the types of offenses in which the people charged could have their guns taken away. Wisconsin law already allows for taking weapons away from people under a domestic violence restraining order or injunction.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who appeared together at a forum Tuesday, named the background check or "red flag" bills as priorities for the remainder of the legislative session.
Vos repeated that he did not want to take away Second Amendment rights and said he wanted to focus on topics that will bring Republicans and Democrats together such as water quality, increasing adoptions and suicide prevention. Fitzgerald said he wants to work on criminal justice reform and issues facing the state prison system.
Last week, Evers called on Republicans to pass the bills. Evers and Vos were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, while a meeting with Fitzgerald had not yet been scheduled, said Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff.
Vos said last week that he hoped to find common ground with Evers on mental health issues, which he called the "real problem."
On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Tittl, chairman of the Assembly's mental health committee, was the latest Republican to refuse to answer questions about whether he supports a universal background check. And he said a package of mental health bills that he and other Republican lawmakers and advocates unveiled was part of a yearslong push to improve mental health services and not a response to the shootings this month in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead.
Tittl noted that he first served on a legislative task force on mental health in 2013.
"We have cared all along about mental health," Tittl said. "This is not a reaction at all to any of the shootings. This is basically a reaction to what we're working on."
The bills would make grants available for mental health centers and nonprofits across the state as a way to ensure services are available; provide a $100,000 income tax deduction for psychiatrists and double for those in more rural, underserved areas to entice more of them to work in Wisconsin; and update standards and practices for psychologists. Those who spoke in support of the measures at a Capitol news conference included a person who said he's been battling mental illness for more than 25 years, the leader of the state Boys & Girls Clubs and the head of a Painting Pathways Clubhouse that provides mental health services.
This story has been corrected to remove the reference to Vos starting a mental health task force this year. Vos did not launch a task force.
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