Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is facing a spate of harsh headlines ahead of his reelection bid this November after making politicizing statements in the wake of the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed in May.
Uvalde police are still under scrutiny from local residents and federal investigators for failing to stop the rampage for nearly an hour, instead directing force towards restraining distraught parents who were attempting to save their children. The gunman was able to cause widespread harm after legally purchasing two semi-automatic rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition within days of the shooting despite clear signs of mental distress.
In stark contrast to calls for stricter gun laws and expanded background checks, Johnson opposed new firearm restrictions and blamed “wokeness,” “liberal indoctrination,” “secularization of society” and critical race theory for school shooting tragedies like Uvdale.
“The solution lies in stronger families, more supportive communities [and], I would argue, renewed faith,” he said in an appearance on Fox Business. “We’ve lost that. We stopped teaching values in so many of our schools. Now we’re teaching wokeness. We’re indoctrinating our children with things like [critical race theory], telling – you know – some children they’re not equal to others and they’re the cause of other people’s problems.”
Johnson also argued against stricter background checks as a solution to gun violence.
“No matter what you do, people fall through the cracks,” he equivocated.
School shootings have been commonplace in the United States since the Columbine tragedy in 1999, long before critical race theory became a talking point at school board meetings. When presented with this fact, Johnson shot back, “I think CRT has been going on under the radar for quite some time as well… wokeness has been, liberal indoctrination has been. This is a much larger issue than what a simple new gun law’s going to, it’s not going to solve it.”
The ambiguous talking point of “critical race theory” is often conflated with culturally relevant teaching. Conservative pundits have politicized the term in the past two years, leading school boards and state legislatures across America to eliminate lessons about racism in classrooms or ban young adult books about racism and police brutality, such as “The Hate U Give,” for being “pervasively vulgar.”
In actuality, critical race theory is a graduate-level legal studies concept coined by University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw that explains how institutions like the criminal justice system or housing market proliferate racism through implicitly biased policy. It neither demonizes white people nor encourages gun violence, and is scarcely found in the K-12 curriculum. Academic criticisms of critical race theory exist but few extend beyond the courtroom.
Johnson’s unsupported claim that critical race theory is related to gun violence elicited the ire of Democratic candidates vying to replace him in the U.S. Senate.
“[Johnson] and his gun lobby-funded colleagues are the reason we haven’t been able to pass common-sense gun reform,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said.
Barnes wondered how Wisconsinites could trust “anything that comes out of the mouth of a self-serving politician” whose “loyalty can be bought – even when children’s lives are on the line.”
Democratic Senate candidate and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry also took issue with Johnson’s inaction.
“Doing nothing has resulted in one thing: more dead children, and the people of Wisconsin are tired of having a do-nothing Senator in Washington,” Lasry said. “We need to ban assault weapons, expand background checks and make our communities safer. The only way to change the deadly status quo in this country is to get Ron Johnson out of the Senate.”
Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski bashed Republicans such as Johnson who she said are “bought and paid for by the gun lobby.”
“It is incomprehensible that Congress would leave for a two week holiday while the body count continues to rise out of Texas,” she added. “Thoughts and prayers ring hollow when they come from a spineless politician who doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the NRA’s corrupt influence.”
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said Johnson was “bearing false witness when he refuses to name the cause of these mass tragedies, which is our nation’s lunatic access to weapons of mass destruction of the type used to slaughter these children in Uvalde.”
Nelson later showed up at Johnson’s Oshkosh office brandishing a $1.2 million check, representing the donations from the NRA to Johnson over the past decade.
As of now, political deadlock has halted federal action. Johnson’s comments came a day after Democrats blocked his attempt to codify the Federal Clearinghouse on School Safety, which establishes a database that provides information about threat management.
Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blocked action on the bill, saying he would focus instead on enabling federal agencies to investigate and prosecute domestic terrorists. Republicans blocked that bill the day after.
Gun crime and school safety in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, the rate of gun deaths increased 17% from 2010 to 2019, with homicides increasing fastest. In 2020, firearm-related injuries became the national leading cause of death for children and adolescents.
The issue of gun violence in Wisconsin has not only grown as a statistic, however. High-profile incidents such as the 2021 shooting in Kenosha, where Illinois teen Kyle Rittenhouse brought a semi-automatic rifle across state lines to a riot and shot 3 men in an act of vigilantism, have thrust Wisconsin gun violence onto the national stage.
Just last week in Racine, two grieving family members were shot at a funeral for Da'Shontay L. King Sr., who was shot and killed during a traffic stop on May 20.
"We were at the gravesite trying to get prepared to bury him, and bullets started flying everywhere," King’s sister, Natasha Mullen, said.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason called the attack on King’s grieving family a “new low” for the community, which was placed under an 11 p.m. juvenile curfew last weekend.
Another three shootings in Milwaukee last month left 20 injured, prompting Mayor Cavalier Johnson to advocate for stronger firearms restrictions.
“Before somebody gets to the point where they have a gun … and they decide to shoot in a crowd full of people, you have to think about whether those folks should have access to a gun in the first place,” Johnson said in a press release. “I don’t think it’s crazy to say that those people should not. They obviously don’t have the responsibility to wield the weapon.”
In Wisconsin, criminal background checks are required only for purchases from licensed dealers. Purchases from unlicensed dealers – including person-to-person, gun show or online sales – do not require any form of a background check.
Prospective buyers also do not need licenses to own or purchase guns, with the exception of concealed carry permits. Further, Republicans in the legislature proposed a bill last session to protect firearm makers and sellers from liability for how the guns they distribute are used.
Wisconsin additionally has had no waiting period for handgun purchases since 2015, when then-Gov. Scott Walker repealed 48-hour waiting periods for handgun purchases. The absence of waiting periods and background checks allows a prospective buyer to purchase a gun and leave with their desired weapon on the same day, even if their background check is incomplete.
“I was in and out within 40 minutes,” UW-Madison sophomore Jake Lyon ‘25 said about his recent experience buying a semi-automatic rifle. “I had to have my ID photocopied, and there was an FBI background check for felonies and a questionnaire to be sure I wasn't buying it for anyone else. Buying ammo only needs a valid ID above 18.”
Though Wisconsin still has relatively strong gun laws compared to some other states, weaker laws in surrounding states and recent changes under the Walker administration pose challenges to mitigating gun violence. Loose gun legislation has been correlated with increased trafficking of firearms to neighboring states, suggesting gun control measures must be consistent and ubiquitous in order to be effective.
Gun death rates in Wisconsin saw a marked uptick after the state passed concealed carry in 2011, and again after Gov. Walker eliminated the 48-hour waiting period.
Background checks do stop some high-risk people who would otherwise own a firearm — 4,388 prospective gun purchasers in Wisconsin failed criminal background checks and were prevented from buying guns between 2012 and 2015. However, the grounds for denial of permission to purchase guns only include felonies, domestic abuse, undocumented status and mental instability.
Analyzing the causal factors behind school gun violence
Though some advocate for “hardening” schools into gated, single-entry point fortresses filled with ballistic blankets, armed teachers and transparent backpacks, these solutions are a security theater at best and actively harm students’ mental health at worst. In Uvalde, the school and police had rehearsed how to defend against active shooter situations, yet the police still failed to prevent the massacre.
Beyond prevention, officials point toward addressing mental health issues in schools as a strategy for mitigating violent crime, an area where Wisconsin sees much room to improve.
A report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 41.8% of some 70,000 Wisconsinites aged 12–17 who reported depression in 2021 did not receive any care.
Additionally, the average counselor caseload was 414 students per school counselor in 2018, placing Wisconsin above the national average and far above the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) recommended ratio of 250 students per counselor. With regard to specialized mental health professionals, Wisconsin has a ratio of one school psychologist per 901 students and one school social worker per 1,750 students, far above the recommended ratio of 1:500 and 1:250, respectively.
Accessibility issues aren’t limited to teens, either. Of the 266,000 adults in Wisconsin who did not receive needed mental health care, 37.3% did not because of cost. Wisconsinites are also over four times more likely to be forced out-of-network for mental health care than for primary health care.
In light of these facts, experts recommend renewed investment in student support staff and services, focusing on improving school climate and expanding Medicaid to include school-based mental health services.
Still, mental illness is not innately the end-all-be-all cause of violent crime. Though suicide and homicide risk is elevated among those with specific conditions, the vast majority of gun violence or violent crime is not perpetrated by people suffering from mental illness. The greatest risk factors for violent behavior continue to be socio-demographic and economic circumstances including poverty and inequality, unstable home environments and substance abuse.
Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.