MADISON, Wis. - Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen for the first time issued a state permit Wednesday allowing a retired investigator to carry a concealed firearm.
Van Hollen's decision lays bare the differing opinions among law enforcement agencies about whether they should - or even can - issue permits to retired officers in one of only two states that ban the general population from carrying concealed weapons.
Some local police departments have been issuing permits to carry concealed weapons for the past four years under a federal law allowing them to do so. But a host of other state and local agencies have been skittish about doing so because the Legislature has not guaranteed they would be immune from liability in a shooting or spelled out how to implement the federal law.
Among those declining to issue the permits are the Capitol Police, State Patrol, Department of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Bureau and University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department.
Wisconsin and Illinois are the only two states that don't allow regular citizens to get permits to carry concealed weapons. The issue has been bitterly debated in Wisconsin, with Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle twice vetoing such bills.
Nonetheless, the four-year-old federal law makes some of the thousands of retired Wisconsin officers able to pack a concealed weapon.
Van Hollen said he hoped other agencies would follow his lead. He said he has told them they have the authority to issue such permits.
"We're showing them we're putting our money where our mouth is," he said.
Other permits likely
Van Hollen issued the permit Wednesday to Tom Steingraeber, who retired from the Department of Justice's white collar crimes unit in 1993. He said he would grant the permits to other retired agents who qualify.
Steingraeber, 70, of Otsego, said he plans to carry his Glock pistol as protection when he travels.
"I think if the criminal element realizes there are more law-abiding citizens that may be armed, it certainly could be a deterrent to people hijacking cars and things like that," he said.
Under the 2004 federal law, police agencies can permit former officers to carry concealed firearms if they retired in good standing, worked as an officer for 15 years or more, have met state firearms training standards within the past year, and are not otherwise barred from possessing a firearm under federal law.
The glitch: Wisconsin does not set training standards for local law enforcement agencies. That makes it unclear what retirees must do to qualify for a permit, some say.
Van Hollen, a Republican, pushed for a bill that would have told police agencies what they must do to issue the permits and given them immunity from lawsuits. Neither house voted on the measure before the Legislature adjourned in March.
Van Hollen said he believes he has the authority to issue permits, but he wanted the bill passed to ease the minds of other police officials.
Other agencies aren't ready to act.
State Patrol Superintendent David Collins said, "I'm not so sure that being away from law enforcement and being away from . . . making split-second life-and-death decisions is really something that you want to do with retirees."
Clarence "Bud" York, who retired from the State Patrol in 1993, said he was frustrated that he couldn't get credentials to carry a concealed gun.
York, 69, laid the blame with the Department of Justice and the Law Enforcement Standards Board for not setting a statewide policy.
"We don't need any new legislation," he said. "What we need is Training and Standards to get off their backsides. . . . They have all these little excuses about why they don't want to train these qualified officers."
Van Hollen disputed that the board or his agency can do anything more. He said he was surprised that other state officials are arguing the federal law is unclear.
"(It) really sets out the criteria, and it's not very difficult to interpret," he said.
But police agencies around the state have opted not to implement the law. For instance, the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department do not issue the permits.
In Ozaukee County, Sheriff Maury Straub will hold a training session this summer for department retirees. Those who qualify on a shooting range will be issued permits for concealed weapons.
Dean Meyer, a former Rusk County sheriff and current Ladysmith police chief, said he knows many retirees are eager to get permits, but he would never apply for one.
"When you retire from this, it's kind of nice to get away," he said. "If you're going out and about somewhere with your family, why would you want gun strapped to you and have to respond to something?"