After failed attempts to pass legislation defending Wyoming from federal gun laws, lawmakers in Cheyenne got crafty.
With an incendiary Senate amendment, they transformed a bill about hunting licenses into a bill preventing the federal government from regulating high-powered rifles in the state.
Some lawmakers called the move bogus. Others called it unconstitutional. But the bill passed the Legislature and now heads to Gov. Matt Mead’s desk.
The original intent of House Bill 41 was to reduce the state’s bison population from 900 to 500. The bill calls for lifting the number of bison hunters can kill from one per lifetime to one every five years.
The legislation passed without controversy in the House. But the provocative Senate amendment turned the bill's contents into a hot issue during the Legislature’s final days.
“This was the only opportunity we had left to look at the rules and say, ‘what can we do?’” said Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs. “We got creative to stand up for the people of Wyoming on Second Amendment rights.”
The bill sets aside $250,000 for the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office to sue the federal government if it passes a law that would limit Wyomingites' ability to hunt big game, said amendment sponsor Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper.
“The amendment protects ownership, purpose and use,” he said.
Wyoming law only limits the caliber size of guns used for hunting.
If the Obama Administration regulates caliber size, it would be break Wyoming law and limit citizens’ rights to hunt, said Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton.
“You could use an AR-15 to hunt bison if it’s chambered with a .308,” Hicks said.
Lawmakers questioned the constitutionality because the bill addresses two separate titles: bison licenses and gun laws.
The Wyoming Constitution allows only one subject per bill, said Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson.
With the amendment, the bill isn’t constitutional, said Sen. Phil Nicholas during a Senate floor debate on Tuesday.
“I don’t think talking about hunting bison and the Second Amendment are the same thing,” said Sen. Wayne Johnson, R-Cheyenne. “There were more than two subjects in that bill. So I voted no.”
Even though the bill’s title and its effects are on opposite ends of the spectrum, Scott was optimistic that the bill could stand on its own in a court of law.
“The courts have given the legislature wide latitude in determining constitutionality of this sort of thing,” Scott said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I think the nexus of licensing buffalo hunting is adequate to sustain this bill.”
Before he signs the bill, the governor will have to weigh the issue of constitutionality versus its preemptive intent.
The governor’s office will conduct a legal review before it’s decided whether or not it becomes law, said Renny MacKay, communications director for Mead.
The original purpose of this bill was to lower hunting fees, said Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan.
“Does that mean that every licensing bill that comes forward should have additional appropriations on it or something that doesn’t have anything to do with license fees?” He said.
Pro-gun lobbyists were critical of the amendment.
“It makes no sense,” said Bob Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “They said it was germane to pass, but at the same time it’s unconstitutional. It drives me nuts.”
Opponents say that lawmakers who voted against pro-gun bills this session are using the legislation as a crutch for their next campaign.
“This is the kind of thing where we try to hoodwink the constituents,” said Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee.
He was upset that the amendment is set to expire in 2014, leaving the attorney general without funds for litigation.
“The amendment makes this bill a sham,” Schiffer said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
A firearm amendment doesn’t belong in a bill about bison, said Anthony Bouchard, executive director of Wyoming Gun Owners Association.
“This kind of stuff happens on the floor because leadership killed the bills that would have protected Wyoming from the federal government,” he said. “This amendment is a byproduct of that.”
Last week a bill that would have nullified federal laws regulating guns died in the Senate. The bill would have made executive orders and other federal actions unenforceable and would have given the state authority to arrest federal law enforcement officers.
“With the amendment they were trying to do something more appropriate,” Johnson said. “But it messed up the bill.”
The amendment signified the ongoing tension between the Senate and House. When it returned to the House for a concurrence vote on the amendment, many legislators were skeptical.
House lawmakers castigated the Senate for sneaking the gun legislation and the $250,000 appropriation in the bill.
“I see this type of thing happening in D.C.,” said Rep. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne.
In politics, the amendment is known as a rider.
“One of the great things about the integrity of the Wyoming Legislature is that we don’t put on riders,” Gingery said. “There are members of the House that were frustrated that the Senate would do this.”
House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, called the amendment a political statement and a poison pill.
He urged lawmakers to keep the bill alive.
It passed 49 to 11.