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Controversial ‘stand your ground’ bill close to passage as civil immunity takes center stage

CHEYENNE — A controversial self-defense bill moved closer to passing the Wyoming Legislature on Friday after a tense House debate that centered on gun-related legislation.

The House approved a heavily-amended Senate bill meant to codify the “stand your ground” self-defense doctrine in Wyoming with one additional change that must now be confirmed by the Senate before being sent to Gov. Matt Mead for his signature.

But the chamber accepted an amendment to weaken the civil immunity provision in the bill, which clarifies the right of individuals to use force against someone who is attacking them. The Senate previously removed most of the criminal immunity language, which originally barred the arrest or prosecution of anyone who claimed self-defense in an assault or murder case and was objected to by law enforcement and a trial lawyers organization. A judge would have been required to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual had not acted in self-defense before the case could proceed to trial.

However, the language related to civil immunity — which would prohibit someone from being sued for acting in self-defense — was left largely unchanged. The House voted to change the bill to allow an individual to be sued if he or she injured an innocent bystander while acting in self-defense.

“We’re shooting people here, I know some people think that’s a pretty good idea but I’m just wondering about what happens when other people start getting shot,” said Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, who sponsored the change.

Individuals would still be immune from being sued by an aggressor who they injured while defending themselves, but they could potentially be held liable for accidentally injuring someone who was not attacking them while attempting to act in self-defense.

“What this amendment does is simply allow that innocent bystander or that innocent bystander’s family to have a course of action,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie. “It doesn’t mean that bystander will win or lose.”

While the amendment eventually passed with 36 of the chamber’s 60 lawmakers in favor, the debate turned into a proxy battle over the “stand your ground” bill itself and the process of passing gun-related legislation in Wyoming.

The measure’s main sponsor in the House, Rep. Tim Salazar, R-DuBois, opposed the change to civil immunity and said Gierau was simply trying to sink the entire bill.

“I know what this amendment is doing. I think you do, too,” he said. “You know what this amendment is about.”

Salazar had initially opposed changes to his “stand your ground” legislation, which was slightly different than the version approved Friday by the House, arguing that they were intended to gut the bill.

How 'stand your ground' became controversial in the gun-friendly Wyoming Legislature

CHEYENNE — “Stand your ground” bills in state legislatures across the country tend to be fraught. For proponents, the phrase “stand your ground” has become shorthand for the rights of law-abiding gun owners to use their weapons when necessary. For critics, it’s an ominous step toward a vigilante justice system, often racially tinged, where people perceived to be criminals are gunned down in the streets without consequence.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, decried the uniform support for gun bills in the Wyoming Legislature regardless of their substance. He said that 10 years ago he brought a gun-related bill “to maybe increase my street cred on a certain rating scale” and watched it sail through the House without debate.

“These are topics that are really difficult for this body to talk about,” he said. “(But) it’s an important debate — it’s a life-or-death issue.”

After approving Gierau’s amendment to allow innocent bystanders to sue someone who injured them while attempting to use force against a third party, the bill sailed through the House on a 51-9 vote. Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the measure and Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, was the only Republican to oppose it.

The Senate must now vote on whether to concur with the House’s change to the civil immunity provision. That vote was expected to occur Friday night or Saturday.

If the Senate does pass the measure, it will be sent to Gov. Matt Mead for his signature or veto and if they do not agree with the change the bill will be returned to the House.

Mead said in an interview Wednesday that he had significant concerns with the criminal immunity provisions of the bill, which were also opposed by the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association. However, most of those clauses were stripped from the bill in the Senate.

Wyoming Gun Owners and the National Rifle Association both opposed any changes to the “stand your ground” legislation and warned lawmakers that backing changes to criminal immunity in the bill would be scored as an “anti-gun” vote.

Advocates of the measure argue that it is necessary to empower Wyoming residents to be able to defend themselves without fear of prosecution, while critics said self-defense was already legal and the bill risked legitimizing inappropriate behavior by aggressive or trigger-happy individuals who feel unreasonably threatened.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Douglas players cheer from the bench after a basket against Powell on Friday in the girls Class 3A semifinal game of the Wyoming State High School Basketball Championships at Kelly Walsh High School. Douglas defeated Powell 47-30 and will appear in Saturday's title game at the Casper Events Center. Find stories, stats and photos in Sports, B1

Grizzly bear hunting regulations proposed in Wyoming; rules would allow up to 24 bears to be killed in historic hunt

Up to 23 grizzly bears could be killed during this fall’s hunting season if Wyoming’s wildlife commission approves new draft regulations.

It would be the first grizzly bear hunting season since bears were placed on the endangered species list in 1975. Grizzly bear hunting has been long-awaited by those who believe their numbers are large enough and feared by others who say the bears are still at risk of being endangered.

While the quota states the most that could be killed by hunters are 24 bears, the specifics of the hunts are more nuanced, said Brian Nesvik, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s chief game warden.

A quota of 12 exists for what is called the demographic monitoring area, a chunk of Wyoming surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks that is considered suitable grizzly bear habitat. The monitoring area generally occupies the northwest corner of the state including the bulk of the Wind River Range. It also stretches into Montana and Idaho, though the proposed hunting regulations only apply to Wyoming.

Another quota of 12 is set for bears in places that aren’t suitable grizzly bear habitat – such as corn fields on ranches in the plains – or in areas where they consistently cause conflict.

Licenses will be $6,000 for a nonresident and $600 for a resident. Six of the 24 licenses will go to nonresidents.

Wildlife officials estimate there were just over 700 grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in 2017. There isn’t an estimate for how many bears live outside the monitoring area near places like Lander or Powell.

“It provides for a very conservative hunting season using the quota that is pretty much prescribed by and calculated by a formula in the conservation strategy and tri-state memorandum,” Nesvik said. “It spits out a number and says we can’t take out any more than this number of females and this number of males.”

Within the monitoring area, up to two female and 10 male bears will be allowed to be killed. Licenses will be given on a lottery system, but only two licenses will be initially offered. As hunters kill bears, they will call into the department to report the gender of the bear. If two female bears are the first two killed, for example, the hunt will be over.

But because of the way licenses will be issued, only 11 bears could be killed in the monitoring area, not 12, as the quota states.

The female quota only applies within the monitoring area. The 12 bears allowed to be killed outside the area can be of either gender.

Hunters will also be required to complete an education course specifically about grizzly bear hunting, and will be given a satellite communication device to report their kill from the field. Bears will need to be brought into a Game and Fish office within five days to verify gender and collect other biological samples.


Grizzly bear hunting has been a source of great controversy throughout the West for more than a decade as the apex predator made its way on and off of the endangered species list.

After grizzlies were delisted in June, Montana decided not to hold a hunt in 2018. British Columbia chose in December to stop hunting grizzlies altogether.

Environmental groups say bear numbers cannot sustain any kind of hunting in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem because of challenges they face from changing food sources.

“Wyoming must demonstrate it can manage grizzly bears responsibly, not rush to begin a trophy hunt,” the Sierra Club wrote in a January news release. “The state’s jump to allow Greater Yellowstone’s treasured grizzlies to be killed for sport the minute they lose federal protections is irresponsible. The focus needs to be on ensuring sustained grizzly bear recovery and coexistence in the region.”

A hunting season will also depend on the outcome of a couple of legal hurdles. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Sierra Club and The Humane Society sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in late August saying climate change and human conflicts are already putting too much pressure on the charismatic creature.

And in early December, U.S. officials said they were going to review removing protections from grizzlies because of a federal appeals court decision regarding wolves in the Great Lakes. The appeals court said that wildlife officials had not considered the loss of the species’ historical range in their decision to delist.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release its conclusions by March 31.

Nesvik says the estimate is conservative, and that the proposed limit would not decrease the total number of grizzlies, as has been the case with wolf hunting.

Game and Fish is also proposing a hunting ban within a quarter mile of U.S. highways in the monitoring area. The prohibition is meant to prevent hunters from shooting bears visible to the public. It will also not allow hunting in the western portion of the hunt area surrounding Grand Teton National Park to help avoid hunters killing some of the more well-known bears — such as the famous Bear 399 — which draw people from around the world to view.

The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce asked for a similar provision in a letter to Game and Fish in August.

“We ask that as your agency experts develop hunt areas, quotas and seasons that they explicitly account for the economic value that bears represent for tourism and businesses in Wyoming,” the letter stated. “This could mean management options that include significantly reduced or no trophy hunting in and around Jackson Hole (and other tourism communities that voice the same concern).”

Hunting will not be allowed in either national park, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway or the Wind River Reservation.


Game and Fish spent a couple of months holding meetings around the state asking people for their views on grizzly bears. Wildlife managers reported their findings to the Game and Fish Commission in January and the commission directed the department to draft regulations.

Another series of public meetings will be held in March and April to discuss the regulations.

The commission will vote on the proposal on May 23 in Lander. If approved, the season will begin Sept. 1 outside of the monitoring area and Sept. 15 inside of it and close no later than Nov. 15.

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect a clarification in the number of bears allowed to be killed in the demographic monitoring area.

Florida governor signs gun restrictions 3 weeks after attack

‌TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Weeks after their children were gunned down in the worst high school shooting since Columbine, parents of the victims stood in the Florida Capitol and watched Gov. Rick Scott sign a far-reaching bill that places new restrictions on guns.

Hours later, the National Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit to block it.

The new law capped an extraordinary three weeks of lobbying that followed the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with student survivors and grieving families working to persuade a Republican-run state government that had shunned gun control measures.

Surrounded by family members of the 17 people killed in the Valentine's Day shooting, the GOP governor said the bill balances "our individual rights with need for public safety."

"It's an example to the entire country that government can and has moved fast," said Scott, whose state has been ruled for 20 years by gun-friendly Republican lawmakers.

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was killed in the shooting, read a statement from victims' families: "When it comes to preventing future acts of horrific school violence, this is the beginning of the journey. We have paid a terrible price for this progress."

The bill fell short of achieving the ban on assault-style weapons sought by survivors. The gunman who opened fire at the school used such a weapon, an AR-15 rifle.

Nevertheless, the bill raises the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21, extends a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include long guns and bans bump stocks, which allow guns to mimic fully automatic fire. It also creates a so-called guardian program enabling some teachers and other school employees to carry guns.

The NRA insisted that the measure "punishes law-abiding gun owners for the criminal acts of a deranged individual." The group promptly filed a lawsuit to block the provision that raises the age to buy guns, arguing that it violates the Second Amendment.

The Parkland gunman "gave repeated warning signs that were ignored by federal and state officials. If we want to prevent future atrocities, we must look for solutions that keep guns out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others, while protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans," Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.

The signing marked a major victory for the teens who lived through the attack and swiftly became the public faces of a renewed gun-control movement. Just days after the shooting, they began holding rallies, lobbying lawmakers and harnessing the power of social media in support of reform.

The governor told the students: "You helped change our state. You made a difference. You should be proud."

Scott, who said he is an NRA member and will continue to be one, said he is still "not persuaded" about the guardian program that will let districts authorize staff members to carry handguns if they complete law enforcement training. It is not mandatory.

"If counties don't want to do this, they can simply say no," he said.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died, called the new law "a start for us."

His teenage son Hunter added: "Let's get the rest of the country to follow our lead and let's make schools safe. Let's harden the schools and make sure this never happens again."

The governor singled out two fathers whose children were killed, saying that they walked the halls of the Legislature since the shooting seeking change.

"I know the debate on all these issues will continue. And that's healthy in our democracy," he said. "This is a time for all of us to come together, roll up our sleeves and get it done."

Student activists from the school called it "a baby step."

"Obviously, this is what we've been fighting for. It's nowhere near the long-term solution," said Chris Grady, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High. "It's a baby step but a huge step at the same time. Florida hasn't passed any legislation like this in God knows how long."

The bill narrowly passed the House and Senate, which formally delivered the reform package on Thursday.

In schools, the measure creates new mental health programs and establishes an anonymous tip line for reporting threats. It also seeks to improve communication between schools, law enforcement and state agencies.

Broward County teachers union President Anna Fusco said teachers supported the bill but not the provision that allows them to carry guns.

She said she wants Scott to veto the money for the guardian program when he receives the budget. The governor cannot veto individual items in the bill itself, but he does have line-item veto power with the budget.

The Broward County school superintendent has already said he does not want to participate in the program.

Meanwhile, the 19-year-old former student accused of assaulting the school went before a judge. Nikolas Cruz faces 17 counts of murder and attempted murder. In a brief hearing Friday, he stood with his head bowed as he appeared via video conference.

Cruz's public defender has said he will plead guilty if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table and sentence him to life in prison instead. Prosecutors have not announced a decision.

Car crash reveals asbestos at Crest Hill

Asbestos at Crest Hill Elementary was revealed when an SUV crashed into the school last week, officials said.

The vehicle crashed into an outer wall of a classroom at the school. Natrona County School District officials and first responders sealed the room, and it has not been used or entered by staff or students since the March 2 crash. Subsequent testing from a district-hired lab revealed “a percentage of asbestos slightly over the ‘trace amount’ of the 1% level by OSHA requirements,” according to a district press release.

The district will begin a cleanup under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. That process will be completed over spring break.

Officials contacted the Department of Health, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and an asbestos consultant. Those “experts and agencies” found that the “risk of potential exposure is minimal and unquantifiable,” according to the release.

The hallway near the sealed classroom was tested and revealed no risk factors earlier this week.

The driver of the SUV that hit Crest Hill may have been affected by a medical issue before the crash, officials said last week.

The school district removed asbestos from floor tiles in Midwest School last year when the building was closed due to a gas leak. District officials said they had planned to remove the tiles previously, but the school’s closure postponed it. A pipe burst in December 2016, and the asbestos was removed before the school reopened in fall 2017.