Testimony against Wisconsin SB169 (Permitless Concealed Carry)

What follows is the edited and sourced text of my testimony from the hearing on SB169 (Permitless Concealed Carry) before the Wisconsin State Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety from Wednesday, May 31st, 2017.

My name is Cabell Gathman and I have a PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I teach college courses with particular attention to gender, sexuality, race and disability. As Sen. Taylor pointed out this morning, no one is free from bias. When even trained law enforcement officers are approximately 3 times as likely to fire a weapon at an unarmed Black man as an unarmed White one (Ross 2015), it is simply not realistic to argue that untrained armed private citizens will act calmly and without bias–especially in the kind of emergency situation to which proponents of these laws so often appeal. It is also the case that about half of people killed by law enforcement in the United States are disabled (Perry & Long 2016); Deaf and autistic people in particular are often read as non-compliant or threatening by people who lack training and experience, as Nicki Vander Meulen mentioned earlier. People living with PTSD face similar danger when flashbacks or other trauma responses affect their behavior, especially when they are people of color who are both more likely to experience serious trauma over the lifetime (Roberts et al. 2011) and to be viewed by others as inherently dangerous (Wilson et al. 2017). Again, these are statistics on trained law enforcement officers, not untrained private citizens who we might predict to be even more prone to escalating tense situations.

There’s been a lot of discussion today about mentally ill people and I want it to be clear that mentally ill people are substantially endangered by this bill, dramatically more so than neurotypical people would be endangered by us. Extensive research has shown that mentally ill people are much more likely to be the targets of violence than the perpetrators (Desmarais et al. 2014), but mental illness stigma greatly increases the likelihood that they will be perceived as a threat, especially by private citizens with no relevant training.

It’s true that we need more public health research on guns in this country; unfortunately, for almost 20 years legislation pushed through by gun manufacturers and associated lobbies largely prevented the CDC and other federal agencies from conducting it (Frankel 2015). We do, however, have some studies, like one from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center reviewing about 20 years of national data that found clear evidence that laws of this nature, revoking licensure requirements for concealed carry, do NOT reduce homicide rates, and moderate evidence suggesting that they actually increase those homicide rates (Rosengart et al. 2005). Making it easier for people to be armed in everyday life increases the risk of lethal harm in the course of everyday interactions, especially when there is no requirement for basic safety training. I find it incredible that some of today’s speakers would seriously argue that all gun owners will voluntarily and promptly seek appropriate training without the legal requirement to do so. I teach college courses. When I assign homework, if I expect anyone to actually do it, it has to be worth some points.

I am also the mother of two small children. My husband enjoyed target shooting for many years. He took me a few times when we were dating and I see the appeal. But after the birth of our first child in 2012, we chose to make our home gun-free. We both felt that the risk of tragedy outweighed the rewards of sport. Other people can make their own decisions on this issue under current Wisconsin law. Under the proposed bill, they would also be permitted to make that decision for my 5-year-old while she receives her legally mandated public education, and I do not accept that.

Obviously I am concerned about firearms in schools. This bill absolutely weakens existing restrictions, and seems to be largely supported by people who don’t think it’s fair that they’ve been violating them already–apparently without penalty, highlighting, I believe, the existing disparities in how gun laws in general are enforced for White people versus Black and Latinx ones, which we should absolutely expect to persist if this bill is passed. Many of the White people who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing feared having the police called if they openly carried firearms in Madison, where community members might justifiably feel threatened by them. We know from experience in this country, however, that Black people and other people of color who openly carry in localities where it is perfectly legal to do so need to worry instead about being killed (Pierce 2016; Raguse 2017). There is no reason to think that they could expect legal concealed carry to work out any better.

People who are already at risk in our state are not protected by permitless concealed carry, and it poses a broader threat to public safety. If anyone is allowed to carry a concealed weapon, it will become dramatically more difficult to respond to worrisome or disturbing behavior in any public space until it has already escalated to a potentially lethal threat.

The majority of mass shootings (those with 4 or more victims) in the United States are connected to domestic violence and 40% of the victims in these cases are children (Everytown for Gun Safety 2017). At least 40% of mass shootings specifically include intimate partner homicide (Mayors Against Illegal Guns 2013); abusers often kill when they have lost access to the home environment, or they seek out a more public stage to maximize the harm they can do and the attention they receive. They do not make their selection, as some prior speakers have argued, on the basis of gun-free zones, but they do often seek out places of employment connected to their victims. It is estimated that almost a quarter of workplace violence is related to employee personal relationships, and in at least ⅓ of cases in which women were killed in the workplace between 2003 and 2008 the perpetrator was a current or former intimate partner (Workplaces Respond to Domestic & Sexual Violence 2017). I’ll note that the majority of public school teachers, particularly at the elementary level, are women, who are also the majority of intimate partner homicide victims.

I know from classroom discussion that many of my college students live in ongoing fear of weapons on their campuses. Many of them, like me, are part of the LGBTQ community, and we remember that concealed weapons did not save the 49 people, most of them POC, murdered last year at Pulse in Orlando. Historically, mass shootings on college campuses have often targeted women in particular, from the Montreal Massacre of 1989 to the 2014 Isla Vista killings. Earlier, I was asked to mention that Legislative Affairs of Associated Students of Madison also opposes this bill.

In a culture where women are sometimes killed for existing in public in ways that strangers don’t like–and where men like Rick Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, or LeDajrick Cox are killed for defending them–this bill dramatically increases the level of fear I feel for myself, my daughters, and my community. When I ride the bus home at night and a random guy hassles me, I don’t want to worry that the bus creep has a concealed weapon and zero training. (I have to consider that other riders might be armed since our state Supreme Court struck down Madison Metro’s weapons ban, but I’d at least like to know who has them for my personal risk assessment purposes.) I also don’t want to worry that some other random person on our bus with a concealed weapon and no relevant training is going to decide to use lethal force to “defend my honor” as a White woman against a Black or Latinx member of our community whom they view as threatening based on their own biases, which quite honestly is a more likely scenario.

We must consider the effects of a law like this not in the world we want but in the one we actually have, in which almost all White people have some level of bias, conscious or unconscious, against people of color, especially Black people. Law enforcement officers themselves have complained about the drain this bias puts on their resources when White private citizens view Black neighbors minding their own business as threats and repeatedly demand police involvement (Ingraham 2015). In the last year, reporting on racial profiling by White users on the popular social network site NextDoor.com got so much attention that the site had to add new filtering questions on its “suspicious person” post template, with mixed results (Medina 2016; O’Donovan 2017). I personally have seen White homeowners in my southwest Madison neighborhood encourage each other via NextDoor to call police on Black children knocking on doors asking to do yard work and other odd jobs. We only have to remember the 2014 murder of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old Black boy, by a 47-year-old White man who felt justified to kill a child for listening to “thug music,” to understand the possible tragic consequences of racism combined with easy access to firearms and no training. It should not escape you that the word “thug” also came up in numerous testimonies in favor of this bill.

SB169 will make all of us less safe, but it will have the greatest negative impact on the members of our community who are already at an elevated risk of experiencing violence. I urge all of you to oppose it.

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