On an overcast Friday afternoon, two guys decided to take a walk around downtown Minocqua - while openly carrying firearms.
The walk had been planned for weeks on the website opencarry.org, but, in the end, only one opencarry.org member showed up to be interviewed and take the walk.
"Harry" (his name has been changed to protect his identity) came to The Lakeland Times sporting a green-and-black .40 caliber Springfield Armory XDM semiautomatic pistol on his hip. He asked that his real name not be used because he didn't want his business to be affected.
At the last moment, Jim Olsen, a broker and co-owner of Remax First in Minocqua, joined Harry with his unloaded Blackhawk .357 caliber revolver.
"I wanted to see what the reaction was first," Olsen said, explaining why his gun wasn't loaded. His other reason was that he didn't want to upset anyone because of his business. Olsen said he felt it was immaterial whether the gun was or wasn't loaded, but he did have ammo in his truck.
As for using his real name, Olsen said, "I don't mind having some publicity."
Most people on the street did not immediately notice the guns.
One man he had no problem with the two men carrying.
"They're not shooting," he said.
"This should be legal everywhere," a young woman said as she headed into a store.
It took a memo to help make the walk in downtown Minocqua possible.
On April 20, 2009, Wisconsin's attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, issued an opinion giving guidance to district attorneys on how to handle a situation involving a person peacefully and openly carrying a legal firearm.
"Under Article I, section 25 of the Wisconsin Constitution, a person has the right to openly carry a firearm for any purposes enumerated in that Section, subject to reasonable regulation as discussed," Van Hollen stated.
The attorney general issued the memorandum after he said he received "multiple inquiries" from district attorneys asking how to handle open-carry and disorderly conduct situations.
Van Hollen called the memo an "informal advisory memorandum" that gives the DAs direction on how to proceed.
The memo cleared the way for Harry, Olsen and other Wisconsinites to open-carry, though in Minocqua police chief Andy Gee recognized the legality of open-carry even before Van Hollen's missive.
"The attorney general's memo answered a few questions and opened up a few more," Harry said.
Pre-memo shopping, yard work
Ever since Gov. Jim Doyle uttered, "If you want to carry a gun in Wisconsin, wear it on your hip," at a 2006 press conference, people have been doing just that, but the outcome has not always been benign.
On May 14, 2008, Jesus Gonzalez walked into a West Milwaukee Menards and into the crosshairs of the open-carry movement and its opponents.
For Gonzalez, he was there for some bricks. A manager spotted him carrying and asked him to leave the store because of his shiny Taurus 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Gonzalez returned to the parking lot and legally stored his gun in its case.
When the West Milwaukee police arrived, they questioned Gonzalez and then arrested him for disorderly conduct. He was released the same day, without his firearm.
The gun was not returned to him until March 2009. Judge Kevin E. Martens not only returned his property but cleared Gonzalez of all charges. Despite an outpouring of online support, only his lawyer and younger brother Adan attended the hearing.
Within weeks, Gonzalez was detained for open-carrying at a Wal-Mart in Chilton while buying ammunition with his cousin. The gun was again confiscated. Chilton did not charge him, but kept the gun. The firearm was later returned.
The high profile case of Brad Krause, of West Allis, brought open-carry into the spotlight. Krause was in his yard planting a tree wearing a holstered pistol when officers came onto his property with their weapons drawn. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, but a municipal judge later found him not guilty.
A neighbor's inquiry about the legality of Krause's openly displayed firearm spurred the police to action.
A peaceful procession
Back in Minocqua - perhaps in part because of the Krause and Gonzalez incidents and similar police actions - a call was made to the Minocqua Police Department prior to the open-carry walk, in an effort to put some fears to rest.
"All of our people were made aware that this event was occurring," Gee said in a telephone interview.
Gee called the practice of open-carrying inconvenient and doesn't believe it will become a trend. [See online video of Harry readying his gun for travel and talking about gun handling.]
The police chief said open carriers face many restrictions: They are unable to enter government buildings, they can't open-carry in/on motorized vehicles, they are unable to enter school zones or be within 1000 feet, they cannot carry in an establishment that has a class B liquor license and business owners who do not want firearms in their establishments can ask a carrier to leave.
"Business owners on private properties do have a right to regulate who they allow in their establishments," Gee said.
He emphasized that the Minocqua police department's job is to enforce the laws on the books, not personal opinions. Gee said other groups in the past have discussed doing walks downtown, but nothing came of it.
Toward the end of the walk, the open carriers ran into the Minocqua town chairman Joe Handrick. He had been invited via the open-carry website to join in the armed stroll, but never responded to the online invite. According to member information, Handrick became a member shortly before the walk.
Handrick told The Lakeland Times in a follow-up phone call that Gee had brought the walk to his attention because the open-carry website had mentioned his name. The chairman said he joined to let members know that the Minocqua police department was aware of their rights and that a Minocqua ordinance banning guns was not enforceable because of so-called pre-emption.
In the late 1990s, as a member of the state Legislature, Handrick co-authored the firearms pre-emption law that prohibits local governments from enacting local gun laws that are inconsistent with the state's gun laws.
It was done at the state level to avoid a "patch work of gun laws," Handrick said. This allows people who are traveling through the state with a firearm to be covered by consistent laws.
"I just wanted to see what was happening," Handrick said of the walk.
While he supports peoples' right to open-carry, he said he was not there to promote the walk. He just wanted to make sure no issues arose during the jaunt.
Handrick, Harry, and Olsen discussed the possibility of having a picnic in the area. Nothing is concrete, but in follow-up phone calls both Harry and Olsen said they are still interested in putting together an event.
Just an ordinary day
The consensus of the duo was that no one seemed to care.
"Uneventful, but needed," Harry said.
He felt it would have been a different story had it been Memorial Day weekend, meaning that the more people there were, the bigger the reaction might have been.
During the walk, a police cruiser was spotted patrolling the main street area, and Harry said that, while none of the people on the street reacted to the gun, he noticed a police officer keeping an eye on the group.
"He turned hard and watched in the mirror," Harry said.
He felt that if Gee hadn't said hands off, there might have been contact.
"It may have been great," Harry said. "It may have been ugly. It would have all depended on how well informed the officer was of peoples' rights."
When asked, Handrick said no change had been made to the police schedule; the open carriers just happened to be by the station.
Posted: Monday, June 8, 2009
Article comment by:
The brainwashing on this subject has been so deep and so broad that people don't know the truth anymore. Whats the difference between the thug with a gun and one of these open-carry guys? Its the person! Our liberal media has been so intent on demonizing the gun that people don't even understand the truth anymore. Way to go Lakeland Times for properly covering this story without bias! It is so refreshing to get a "Report" instead of an editorial with a report mask. Thank you.
Posted: Monday, June 1, 2009
Article comment by:
This will be just great for the tourist business - everyone knows that the biggest problem Minocqua has is the perception of rampant violent crime. I blame it on all the gosh darned fudge! People get all sugary buzzed up - you never know what they will get into! At least now - we can depend on a well-armed citzenry to take back the streets!