My column for the Daily News is online. It’s called, “Is it time to change laws for drunken driving?” Here it is:
Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Jim Ott have pledged to offer bills to strengthen Wisconsin’s laws regarding drunk driving. The pair advanced similar legislation in the previous session that ended up back in their desk drawers without either house of the legislature having voted on them. It is a curious thing in Wisconsin that stronger laws against drunk driving almost always follow that same legislative trajectory.
Before living in Wisconsin, I lived in Texas. The differences in the drinking culture were quite a shock when I first moved to this great state. Texas has quite a puritan attitude toward the consumption of alcohol.
For example, there are still many “dry” counties in Texas where the sale of hard liquor is prohibited except at “private clubs.” The “private club” distinction is riddled with loopholes and the liquor stores just across the county lines make a fortune, but they are still there. Serving booze at a church function or a wedding is just not done.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, alcohol seems to be a feature of virtually every gathering of people. It is served and celebrated at church gatherings, fairs, fests, sporting events and even offered at many homes for the parents of trick-or-treaters at Halloween.
The differences in attitudes toward alcohol, I suspect, are a result of the historical ethnic and religious brews of each state. Wisconsin’s large populations of Catholics and Lutherans of German, Scandinavian and Polish descent have infused alcohol consumption into their traditions for centuries. Texas’ large population of Evangelical Christians (almost 65 percent) has taken a much more teetotaler view of alcohol consumption. That is not to say that either culture is better or worse. In fact, according to 2009 data, Wisconsin was second in per capita alcohol consumption while Texas was close behind in seventh place. But the public perception of alcohol consumption is reflected in the states’ drunk driving laws.
Texas has fairly strong drunk driving laws where the first offense is a misdemeanor crime with mandatory jail time, any offense with a child under 16 is a felony and the third offense is a felony. Wisconsin’s drunk driving laws are some of the weakest in the country with a first offense being akin to a traffic ticket without it becoming a felony until the fourth or fifth offense.
It is recognition of Wisconsin’s relatively weak drunk driving laws that has compelled Darling and Ott to seek change. Their proposal would make the first drunk driving offense a misdemeanor for those with a blood alcohol content higher than 0.15 percent, turn the third offense into a felony, introduce mandatory jail time in some cases and more. Such proposals are laudable and conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Jews and Gentiles will all nod approvingly and say that they need to pass. Yet one wonders if they will not find their way to the same dusty drawer as so many of their predecessors.
The stated reason that so many new drunk driving laws have struggled to pass the legislature in the past is usually blamed on cost. After all, it is no small expense to arrest, prosecute and punish more people more severely. It is a legitimate concern, but most politicos put the blame at the feet of the powerful Tavern League, which holds sway with its large and influential constituency and has historically opposed any tougher laws when it comes to alcohol consumption.
But while those traditional explanations for the demise of tougher laws have some basis in reality, it does not fully explain Wisconsin’s generational reluctance to crack down on drunk driving. Beyond the somewhat lenient laws, Wisconsin judges have treated drunk drivers with an extraordinary gentleness. No, there’s more to it than that.
The root of Wisconsin’s reluctance to strengthen our drunk driving laws is us. Drinking is a part of our culture and a part of normal life for many Wisconsinites. While many a wizened Wisconsinite may lecture their neighbor that we should strengthen our drunk driving laws, they will mutter to themselves, “there but by the grace of God go I.”
Wisconsin should strengthen its drunk driving laws to bring them in line with the seriousness of the issue. As we do so, however, let us also recognize that our laws are a reflection of our culture. It is difficult to change the former without also changing the latter.
It’s a quibble, but this annoyed me a bit. Here’s the title of a news story from the Patch:
Wisconsin Sees Surge in Gun Ownership
And here’s the heart of the story:
When Wisconsin’s conceal carry law took effect in November 2011, gun sales in the state jumped. And the trend continued throughout 2012, according to reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A Dec. 27 story reported the background check hotline for handgun purchases has handled 60 percent more calls in 2012 over 2011. At that time, the newspaper reported, “the hotline handled 132,940 calls. For all of 2011, it received 88,895 calls.”
When I read “surge in gun ownership,” I take it to mean that more people are owning guns. Yet we can’t tell from the data if more people are owning guns or if the same number of people are owning more guns. After all, if I own 1 gun or fifty, don’t I still count as 1 gun owner? I suspect that most concealed carry holders were already gun owners and just needed to purchase a carry gun, but I was hoping the story would tell me. It didn’t.