CHEYENNE — A traveler driving along Interstate 25 at Cheyenne will come within 1,000 feet of Jessup Elementary School.
If that Wyoming driver is carrying a weapon in the vehicle without a concealed weapon permit, he or she is in violation of a little-known federal law.
The Federal Gun Free School Zone Act of 1995 makes it a crime to possess a functional firearm on public property, such as sidewalks, roads, highways, parks or fairgrounds within 1,000 feet of the property line of any elementary, middle or high school.
The penalty for violations is up to five years in federal prison and the permanent loss of the offender’s right to own a firearm.
The National Coalition for Amending the Federal Gun Free School Zone Act of 1995 is alerting Wyoming residents to the existence of the federal ban, given that the state’s new law allowing residents to carry handguns without permits is in effect.
“Anyone who carries in a populated area without a Wyoming permit is unavoidably committing multiple federal felonies,” said Grant Chapman of Oklahoma.
Chapman is working with the coalition and other gun rights organizations, including the Western Wyoming Riflemen’s Association based in Afton, to get the federal law changed.
An exemption in the law applies to gun permit holders, but only in the states where they obtained the permits.
Although Wyoming concealed-carry permits are recognized in 34 other states, the owners risk federal prosecution of the gun-free school zone law in all of them, Chapman said.
The federal law apparently never has been enforced in Wyoming.
The U.S. attorney’s office has not filed charges under the law for at least 15 years, spokesman John Powell said last week.
Powell said the scenario of the I-25 driver who has a weapon in his vehicle and inadvertently breaks the law boils down to a matter of “common sense.”
“Why would we charge anyone with that?” Powell said.
Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said the department has never been in a position where it had to enforce the federal law.
Tim Hare of the Western Wyoming Riflemen’s Association said he first learned of the federal law last year from Chapman.
“I started investigating, and sure enough. It doesn’t matter if you have a carry permit in Wyoming” and get stopped in a school zone in another state.
“If you’re from out of state and you’re in a gun-free school zone and are in possession of a weapon, you are guilty of a federal felony,” Hare said.
“They (Congress) wrote it up so the permit does not matter,” he said.
The law is another example of government chipping away at citizens’ constitutional rights, he said.
Hare said his group is only about five years old and is trying to develop a firing range in the Star Valley area.
Mark Spungin of Guernsey, president of the Wyoming State Shooting Association, said the federal law is unconstitutional and should be repealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court, he noted, ruled the law unconstitutional but Congress passed it again.
“It’s been ignored ever since it passed,” Spungin said. “I don’t see it being an issue here.”
The operative word in concealed carry is “concealed,” he pointed out.
Alan Korwin, an Arizona gun rights activist and author, said the federal law was never intended to be enforced.
“It’s a feel-good, do-nothing law and because of that it should be rescinded,” Korwin said.
The law, he added, has been used in other states as an add-on to drug charges, for example.
Korwin commended Wyoming for passing a “constitutional carry law,” but because of it questions could be raised about restrictions in the federal law, he said.
“If Wyoming was going to do it right, they would stand on states’ rights and say we reject this law because it makes no sense. That would get the attention of the federal government,” Korwin said.
Chapman said that while he agreed the law has historically been a low enforcement priority, it is necessary to change it because permit holders don’t want to violate any law.
Moreover, because of the law’s penalty, people who carry in violation of it are taking a serious legal gamble which they should not be forced to take, Chapman said.
The national coalition is pushing for amendments to exempt any firearm carried in accordance with the laws of the state where the school is located.
Another exemption would be for off-duty law enforcement officers who now also are barred from carrying weapons within 1,000 feet of schools.