Legislative leaders led a post-session news conference Thursday not with a report on the bills adopted but to warn about the attack on the 2013 Legislature by special-interest groups.
"This institution is under attack, and I mean that seriously," Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said. "When legislators receive death threats to themselves or to their families, it is time for civility. It is time for us to act in a better fashion."
House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, continued the theme of legislators under siege. When interest groups say to use their language in a bill or they will get even, that's a threat to the legislative process, Lubnau said.
"I'm concerned for the future of this institution and for the openness we try to encourage in this capitol because of the actions of a very few people who are doing things not necessarily for the interest of the state or for the interests of better legislation, but to further their own interests," Lubnau said.
During their speeches when the Legislature opened in January, Ross and Lubnau had lamented the deterioration of civility and warned about radical fringe groups and their tactics. They said Thursday they had been prophetic.
Democratic leaders, Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie and Rep. Jim Byrd of Cheyenne, agreed with the majority leaders.
"When we have individuals outside the process trying to circumvent it, trying to create situations where we have divisiveness, when people will be voted out of office if they make any changes to a bill, we need to move away from that,” Rothfuss said.
"We will not tolerate this type of abusive behavior to our members, and we stand together as an institution," Rothfuss added.
Legislative leaders have expressed their outrage over attacks on Sen. Leland Christiansen, R-Alta, because of changes he made in a bill aimed at curbing potential federal gun restrictions within Wyoming borders.
Ross said Christiansen, a "warrior" with special forces and a former law enforcement officer, received 1,500 emails from gun rights advocates who were angered because of his amendment.
The emails contained statements the writers never would have made in person, he added.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, did not bring up that gun rights bill for debate along with another proposal to give the state authority over gun laws in cities and towns. Both bills died.
Nicholas said Thursday information apparently was flowing back and forth through Facebook between senators on the floor and lobbyists in the gallery.
As majority floor leader he decided that there was undue influence on certain legislators, not only legislators cozy with the lobby groups but legislators who were not and that "debate was being stifled.”
Nicholas said he was reluctant to identify the lobbying group, but other legislators have said it was the Wyoming Gun Owners Association.
A proposed new law adds electronic messages including emails to an existing law that makes it a crime to make threats of bodily harm or death. Senate File 159 cleared the Legislature this week and awaits Gov. Matt Mead's signature. It carries a penalty of up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine, or both.
Anthony Bouchard, executive director of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, said later Thursday that he heard the assertion in the House about death threats. He said he asked Capitol Police and was told the officers were concerned about some emails but they were not death threats.
Bouchard said he doesn't coach his members on being civil in writing emails to legislators. "I think they're adults," he said.
Bouchard also claimed the Legislature changed its rules to require people in the galleries to remain seated because of him. He said he has to stand to record voice votes on bills and was advised he could no longer do that.
The legislative leaders are "thin-skinned," he said. "We've never seen leadership do this before."
WyWatch Family Values is a group that lobbies on abortion and same-sex marriages issues, among others. "Every email we sent to our members we instructed our members to be polite and courteous, and the legislators are well aware of that," said Becky Vanderberghe, WyWatch's executive director.
Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said the first step should be to look at the laws already on the books to see if the criminal statutes are being violated.
"I think some of these organizations pursuing some of this legislation need to be sure they're communicating clearly with members," Neal said.
"They had plenty of security at the capitol this year," he added. "It's sad to be necessary but it seems they are trying to get ahead of it."
"You can't stop people from being stupid, but you can stop them from being criminal," he said.
David Picard, a seasoned lobbyist for many organizations, said it's difficult to come up with a solution because of the First Amendment constitutional right to free speech.
He is a member of the Capitol Club as a professional lobbyist before the Legislature. The club has a code of ethics that, if violated, can result in expulsion from the organization.
"I don't submit to bullying tactics to force legislators to vote one way or another. Our job as a lobbyist is to provide accurate and meaningful information to our policymakers,” Picard said.
"The only thing we have is our word and our credibility and our handshake. And that's the way we do business in Wyoming."
If he were to use some of the tactics that occurred this session he said he would diminish his voice and would harm the issue he is working on.
"And I wouldn't be in this business much longer," he added.
It would be very bad for policymaking to put any additional restrictions on how people interact with their elected officials, Picard said.
Yet Lubnau said in the news media conference the issue is one for the legislative management council to consider. The council, which includes legislative leaders, can figure out how to maintain openness and friendly relationships "and still protect our membership from these kinds of vile abuses, from folks who, because they're sitting alone in a room in front of a keyboard will say things to somebody they wouldn't say to their face."
"It's happened to the point where it's affecting our processes, and we can't allow that," he said.