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What's next for gun legislation in Wyoming?
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What's next for gun legislation in Wyoming?

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Rifles are lined up and ready to be auctioned in October 2017 at Johnny's Auction House in Rochester, Wash. In the nation's most pro-gun state, some Wyoming legislators are seeking measures that would preemptively counteract gun control.

Riverton Republican Tim Salazar had nine town hall meetings last year. And in each of those meetings, he said, two issues came up more than any other: taxes and guns.

And over the years, Salazar has represented those issues consistently.

One of the Legislature’s most ardent supporters of the Second Amendment, Salazar has reflected his constituents’ pro-gun, anti-tax sentiments during his two terms in office. In three years in office, Salazar has amassed a voting record that not only consistently ranks among the Legislature’s most conservative but has granted him the rank of one of the Legislature’s most pro-gun lawmakers, sponsoring bills like the state’s new “stand your ground” law and a hotly debated bill last session to ban gun-free zones in Wyoming, which gained 30 co-sponsors in the House and Senate.

“I am very much aware my constituency is concerned for anything that would restrict their Second Amendment gun rights,” Salazar said Wednesday. “So that kind of tells you, at least in my constituency, how strongly my constituents feel about it.

“We enjoy our freedoms in Wyoming,” he added. “Wyoming has the highest number of registered guns per capita of any state in America. And I think that’s for a good reason. It’s because we can. We’re gun owners.”

It’s a cause Salazar and other conservative members of the Legislature intend to continue fighting for, particularly as the U.S. — easily the most firearm-friendly country in the developed world — begins to pursue stricter controls on guns. In the Democratic presidential primaries, most candidates have included numerous proposals for stricter gun regulations in their platforms while, in states like Florida, Virginia and Indiana, legislatures are gaining momentum to implement tighter regulations on firearms.

Wyoming is aware of what’s coming. Earlier this year, Sundance Republican Rep. Tyler Lindholm introduced a bill seeking to preemptively ban gun buyback programs while, in communications with their memberships, pro-gun groups are already pushing legislative agendas urging the revival of legislation to ban gun-free zones in the state.

Meanwhile, other legislation like a bill to fix the state’s mental health reporting protocols for background checks — a bill some equated to a “red flag law” — has gained significant attention from gun rights advocates, who have raised concerns about the bill after it was brought back from a late death in the Joint Judiciary Committee earlier this year.

Even in a budget year — where hot-button topics are often pushed aside — Salazar believes gun rights could be a defining topic in the abbreviated 2020 session.

“A budget session is not a prohibitor on good Second Amendment legislation,” Salazar said, noting his “Stand Your Ground” bill passed into law during a budget session.

Can conservative states regulate guns?

Pro-gun bills remain extremely popular in Wyoming, considered one of the nation’s 10 most Second Amendment-friendly states by Guns & Ammo magazine. Bills like last year’s proposed ban on gun-free zones in Wyoming — which passed the House of Representatives before being defeated at the committee stage in the Senate — gained co-sponsorship by a third of the Legislature. Other bills, like the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law, passed by healthy margins.

Wyoming’s loose regulations on firearm sales — which include a lack of restrictions on “black rifles,” or assault-style weapons banned in several other states — have contributed to one of the nation’s highest rates of criminal gun exports, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as the nation’s eighth-highest gun death rate, garnering Wyoming an “F” rating from anti-gun violence nonprofit the Giffords Law Center.

Figures like these have begun to shift the conversation toward stricter regulations even in red states, argues Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and an author of numerous books on gun control. A growing number of conservative states, he notes, have recently pursued lower-level gun reforms like “red flag” laws, spurred in part by a change in political attitudes nationally.

That, he said, is a relatively new development in national politics, where gun reforms have had little success in red and purple states.

“You are beginning to see this kind of movement,” Spitzer said. “It’s not a tidal wave or an earthquake, like it’s not gigantic. But I do think it’s an indication that there’s sort of a slow-moving wave on this issue, where people are finally saying that ‘Look, we can enact some reasonable gun laws without threatening people’s actual gun rights, and the world isn’t going to come to an end.’ You can still hunt, you can still engage in sporting and recreational activities, you can still own your guns and it won’t be the end of the world.”

That tide, however, has been especially slow in traditionally conservative states like Wyoming, he added, where support for Second Amendment rights has remained significantly stronger. Other conservative states, like Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, have pursued greater Second Amendment protections like permitless concealed carry and less stringent regulations on handgun owners.

While Salazar believes Republicans will retain control of the White House and Senate in November, the prospect of a Democratic win this fall is still on the mind.

“Wyoming is not Virginia, and we don’t want to be Virginia or New Jersey or New York,” he said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some preemptive bills in this session.”

A shifting conversation

That level of advocacy has inspired similar concerns among the most ardent supporters of the Second Amendment in Wyoming. Nationally, groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — part of the high-powered national gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety — have begun to organize in states around the country, including Wyoming, to advocate for increased firearm regulations. Last year, the group maintained a presence in Cheyenne in the lead-up to the committee stage defeat of Senate File 75, a bill that would have repealed most gun-free zones in Wyoming.

Heading into this year’s session, the group plans to make its presence known once more.

“Wyoming’s gun death rate is among the highest in the country,” Beth Howard, a volunteer with the Wyoming chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in an emailed statement to the Star-Tribune. “We’ll be at the statehouse this legislative session encouraging lawmakers to support common-sense measures to reduce daily gun violence and to fight back against extremist bills that would jeopardize the safety of our communities. We’ll also keep working to raise awareness of the steps we can all take to keep our families safe by fostering a culture of responsible gun ownership and keeping guns securely stored.”

An eye on the election

But political pressure — both against and in support of gun rights – could play a significant factor in this year’s session, as lawmakers consider the implications their records on Second Amendment issues might have. This is particularly true on the campaign trail, where a lawmakers’ support for the Second Amendment is consistently called into question by pro-gun special interest groups.

Heading into the 2020 election, groups like Wyoming Gun Owners are already prepared to take their fight to the ballot box.

The 501©(4) organization, which cannot directly lobby the Legislature, took a significant amount of credit for hardline Cheyenne Republican Sen. Lynn Hutchings’ defeat of former Sen. Fred Emerich, a moderate on gun control issues, in 2018. In recent weeks, Wyoming Gun Owners has renewed fundraising efforts in anticipation of both the 2020 election as well as the start of the legislative session next month.

In an email to members earlier this month, the organization said it planned to “go on the attack ahead of both the 2020 Primary and General Elections” in an effort to ensure “that every anti-gun member of our State Legislature in BOTH parties is exposed,” and laid out an ambitious legislative agenda for this year’s session that included a renewal of efforts to repeal gun-free zones and oppose a mental health reporting mechanism deemed by some to be a precursor to a “red flag law.”

“It’s an election year, so we’ll be doing what we’ve always done,” the organization’s state policy director, Aaron Dorr, said in an interview earlier. “We’ll be holding lawmakers accountable in the primaries for what they do or don’t do this session. Two years ago, Sen. Emerich found out what happens when you try to be a pro-gun Republican and then fight tooth-and-nail in the Capitol against the rights of gun owners. He’s now retired, Sen. Emerich, and we look forward to exposing as many rotten RINOs as we possibly can in the upcoming election.

“They’re going to need to make a decision,” he added. “Are they going to sit there and lie to gun owners and say they’re pro-gun and run the risk of voters finding out the truth? Or do they want to do the right thing? That choice is up to them.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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