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Open carry in Oconomowoc sparks emotional debate

An ordinance amendment that would allow for the open carry of firearms in municipal parks was passed at first reading at an emotionally charged common council meeting on Tuesday, May 20.

Police Chief Dave Beguhn requested that local ordinance 9.02(a) be amended after a review of state law revealed that the city’s ban on the activity was unenforceable.

“We need to be consistent with the state statutes,” he said. “I am here to enforce the statutes and ordinances that are current law.”

Two residents spoke in favor of the amendment. Pete Holmes told the council he was a former police officer who carried a firearm every day for his current job.

“I ask that you look at this closely,” Holmes said. “Follow the state laws, look at responsible people who hold firearms, rather than the individuals who commit crimes...”

The controversy over the ordinance began with a picture. Heather Karenz of Oconomowoc posted a photo to Facebook last week that showed her young son on a slide at the Imagination Station. Behind him stood an unidentified man carrying a holstered gun on his belt.

“Anything could have happened,” she said tearfully at Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t think it is appropriate. Leave it in your car, I don’t think it is appropriate around my son.”

TMJ4 responded to Karenz posting with a “You Ask. We Investigate” segment, which aired on Monday, May 5. Beguhn said in the report that the man had violated the city’s ordinance banning the open carry of firearms in city parks.

Gun rights activists pounced on the story, arguing that Beguhn was wrong and the ordinance was unenforceable because it was more stringent than similar state laws.

Nick Clark, of Wisconsin Carry, Inc., said he contacted members of his organization after the report aired.

“We have quite a few thousand members that are willing to pick up the phone,” he said.

Beguhn told the council that he reviewed the laws on open carry after the outcry. He said that while state statute prohibited the open carry of firearms in state parks, that law cannot be relied upon to ban open carry in municipal parks.

“I spoke to District Attorney Brad Schimel and he came to the same conclusion I did,” Beguhn said.

Former Mayor Floss Whalen said she opposed the ordinance and urged residents to contact their local representatives to change the state laws.

“It does not matter whether there was a danger or not,” she said. “What matters is that some did not feel safe in their safe place.”

Karenz said she has received threatening messages since the TMJ4 report aired.

“I have heard that someone had said that they wished me and my son had been at this park when some crazy guy shot it up,” she said. “I feel I am not safe there because of this.”

Alderman James Larsen asked Beguhn what would happen if the council postponed a vote on the first reading.

“I think it would put the city in a bad light,” he said. “All you are going to do is attract more people to make a point.”

Alderman Ken Herro said the city should have the right to ban open carry in municipal parks.

“What is good for the state, should be good for the municipalities,” he said. “If they are going to disallow it in state parks, we should be able to disallow it in our parks.”

He also lamented the attention the issue received.

“Today we had another funeral for a heroin overdose,” he said. “What is a gun going to do about that?”

The ordinance is expected to be taken up for a vote on a second and final reading at the council’s June 3 meeting.

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