Oconto County Board upholds Second Amendment

Resolution calls for discussion of root causes of violence
Warren Bluhm

The Oconto County Board on May 19 joined about two dozen other Wisconsin counties that have passed resolutions declaring a commitment to preserve citizens’ Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.

Unlike other such resolutions, the board included a clause supporting advancements in firearm safety education.

The clause says the board joins the sheriff in seeing a need to discuss violence in its totality, not just an issue of gun violence.

“Violence is a result of breakdown on many fronts,” the resolution states, citing “the lack of faith, the eroding of family values, the involvement in gangs, sex trafficking, the abuse and sale of illegal drugs, the lack of proper mental health treatment (and) the lack of education and guidance within our educational system as it relates to safe firearm use, storage and handling.”

Supervisor Jolene Barkhaus, who is serving her first term on the board, said the issue of Second Amendment rights came up a lot when she was campaigning. She denied a criticism of similar resolutions that they encourage law officers not to enforce gun laws that are seen as unconstitutional.

“There’s nothing in this resolution or the first resolution I brought forward that says that we are going to ignore any laws,” Barkhaus said, noting that the resolution recommended by the board’s public safety committee evolved from the original resolution she submitted, thanks to public input. “I utilized the tool of social media because I do feel that the representation of our whole community needs to be clear on this, and I got a lot of good feedback.”

The component about education was added as a result of that feedback, she said, “and now I feel like that is the more important piece to this resolution than the first part.”

While Barkhaus said she did not intend to send a partisan message, the board heard comments from local Republican and Democratic leaders.

Ken Sikora, chairman of the Oconto County Republican Party, said the measure was overwhelmingly supported by the party membership and conservatives in the county.

“In a day and age where the governor, the president, can write an executive order and take away rights that have given to us in the Constitution … we do need to make a statement that in our county, we don’t want to see executive orders take away our rights,” Sikora said.

Jane Benson, a Green Bay Democrat who ran for state Assembly last fall, said fear prevents the board from hearing many Oconto County citizens’ opinions.

“I spoke with hundreds of people in Oconto County during the campaign. There is an entrenched culture of fear in the county,” Benson said. “So many people were afraid to put up yard signs or volunteer for me for fear of bullying and intimidation. The proposed resolution will just make that fear greater.”

Sheriff Todd Skarban said he has two main responsibilities in his position: “The first is to protect you to the best of my abilities; the second is to defend your freedom.”

Defending himself against allegations of partisan divisiveness, Skarban said one of his first acts of sheriff was to invite the local Democrat and Republican chairs into his office.

“We sat with (County Clerk) Kate Pytleski, and we had a really gainful conversation about bringing people together,” the sheriff said. “And what are we doing? We’re building libraries. We’re building substations. We’re creating advocacy groups so that we can ensure that we are absolutely creating an environment of inclusion in our community.”

Supervisor Tracy Ondik said societal violence is not caused by people’s right to defend themselves.

“Evil exists in this world, and the right to keep and bear arms is one piece of something that tends to get the blame for things that people want to do that are entrenched in their heart,” Ondik said, and he praised the education component. “The word ‘divisive’ is being thrown around a lot lately, and this is probably one of the most inclusive resolutions to come forward in this matter addressing the problems.”

Supervisor David Parmentier, who was charged with second-degree reckless endangerment in 2019 for displaying his gun in an alleged road rage incident, said the effort to infringe on gun rights degrades families’ safety and security.

“As someone who’s been thrown under the bus by media, by our district attorney, by our assistant district attorney several years ago, from the moment that I was attacked and I needed a weapon to defend myself, I think I’m uniquely qualified to speak on this,” Parmentier said. “It took three years, roughly, for me to clear my name and pretty close to $10,000 because the district attorney and the ADA had a personal agenda … The only way I stopped that attack was to pull a gun.”

With a new district attorney in place, the felony charge was dropped and Parmentier paid a fine for misdemeanor disorderly conduct in December.

Bill Honrath, of Little Suamico, recounted an incident in 1982 in Chicago – “the sewer of liberalism and anti-gun laws” – in which he defended his wife, his 6-month-old daughter and himself with a firearm.

“Restrictive gun laws are laughed at by criminals. There are good people in this world, there are bad people in this world, and guns are an inanimate object. Those are three facts,” Honrath said. “Bad guys are going to have guns no matter what. Restrictive gun laws only affect good, decent, law-abiding citizens like myself and I’m sure the vast majority of the people in this room.”

The vast majority of mass shootings occur in so-called “gun-free zones,” Honrath said.