Bill to remove ‘gun-free’ zones has widespread support

By Nick Reynolds, Seth Klamann, Katie King and Shane Sanderson

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — A new bill to override local gun control laws and allow Wyomingites to carry guns on school grounds and in other public places has been proposed with widespread support in both chambers of the Wyoming Legislature.

The bill, Senate File 75, proposes to not only repeal most gun free zones across the state but would allow for the carry of concealed weapons anywhere in the state for permit holders. The bill would also clarify that only the Wyoming Legislature may regulate firearms, weapons and ammunition, therefore overriding local ordinances.

The most significant aspect of the bill might be its level of support. Nearly half of the Senate – 13 members – have signed on as co-sponsors, as well as 23 members of the 60-person House.

According to the bill text, the legislation would preempt bans on firearms in all public schools – including on public university and college campuses – governmental meetings and athletic events, both college and professional.

The bill would not, however, preempt private property rights, like in places of worship or in a big box store that chose to ban them as policy, nor would it impact any restrictions currently outlined in the state’s existing concealed carry law.

The bill, said the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, was drafted in response to a number of recent, high-profile cases on public entities limiting where firearms could be carried, including at the University of Wyoming and in Lander.

Bouchard is the former director of the hardline gun rights group Wyoming Gun Owners and was the subject of a highly publicized run-in with students at the University of Wyoming in spring 2017 over their gun reform presentation. He said that recent efforts by local governments and public entities like UW have tempered conservative members of the Legislature, who believe those entities are infringing on Wyomingites’ constitutional rights.

“I think the anti-gun crowd has kind of kicked the hornet’s nest a little bit,” Bouchard said. “This is an enumerated right that needs to be protected. The number of sponsors shows some movement in that direction.”

As proposed, the bill would bring Wyoming law in line with that of neighboring states like Utah, whose gun laws only restrict the carry of firearms in courthouses, mental health facilities, places of worship that ban firearms and secure areas of airports, as well as areas where the carry of arms is prohibited by federal law.

“They’ve been doing it for 20 years, and it works,” Bouchard said.

The bill also clarifies that only the Wyoming Legislature could create gun regulations or legislation in specific language, a legal technicality that has been used to uphold a gun ban on UW’s campus in the past.

Allowing residents to carry weapons on school campuses has been a contentious and frequent topic both in Wyoming and across the nation for years. But in the wake of two deadly high school shootings last year, the debate around school safety has picked up with renewed vigor. Two Wyoming education-related committees considered school security improvements in recent months, with one sponsoring a piece of legislation that would institute training and other security measures.

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a bill that allows school districts to decide whether to allow willing and trained staff to carry weapons. That same year, the Senate killed a House bill that would have allowed for lawful conceal and carry on college campuses. Casper College’s board opposed the measure, as did the leaders of the other six community colleges and the University of Wyoming.

Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetters said she didn’t support the bill. She said that it takes power away from the school boards that were previously given the authority to decide who can carry weapons in their buildings.

“I just don’t believe that guns belong in schools with children,” Vetter said, adding that she was a supporter of gun ownership.

Meredith Asay, the university’s point-person for legislation, said she wasn’t prepared to comment as she had just seen the bill after it posted Thursday morning and was beginning to review it. Chris Lorenzen, the spokesman for Casper College, likewise said he hadn’t seen the legislation Thursday afternoon.

Local leaders should decide whether to allow guns at city and town council meetings, Casper City Manager Carter Napier said Thursday.

“Generally speaking, the professionals who advise me on these issues would indicate that bringing weapons into government meetings would pose security problems and concerns,” he said. “I would prefer that the state allow cities and towns to make that decision on their own.”

The Casper City Council voted in 2011 to make it illegal to bring any deadly weapons to city meetings, but the decision was divisive. Second Amendment advocates said their right to possess firearms shouldn’t stop at the doors of the council chambers, while others argued that guns at meetings could create an air of intimidation and potentially stifle debate during contentious issues.

Vice Mayor Shawn Johnson said Thursday that he has no objections to allowing citizens to bring guns to City Council meetings.

“I always think that the more responsible people who have a concealed weapon on them, the safer we are,” he said, adding that many mass shootings have occurred in gun-free zones.

But other council members have objected to that concept.

Councilman Mike Huber, a former judge, previously said the he doesn’t believe allowing guns at meetings would be a wise call.

“This Council, we have an obligation to provide a safe environment for everybody who comes in here, and I can tell you over the years I have attended a lot of courthouse security training sessions ... the worst thing you can have to make things unsafe for everybody in here is firearms,” he said.

Police Chief Keith McPheeters, whose agency is responsible for providing security at Council meetings, said such meetings are safer when people leave their guns in their cars. McPheeters, who said he has been a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association since 1987, said the high stakes and often emotionally charged nature of Council meetings make them a good candidate for gun-free zones.

“There’s a reason they don’t like guns in bars,” McPheeters said, by way of comparison. “Because emotional debate happens there.”

The bill had not yet been assigned to a committee as of Thursday afternoon. Vetter said the measure’s chances at success will likely depend on where Senate leadership sends it.