Over 999,000 readers this year!

Shot down, resuscitated: Wyoming Senate bucks precedent to target gun-free zones

The Wyoming Senate overruled its president, countermanded its Rules Committee and reversed its Judiciary committee to revive a controversial gun bill that died the day before.

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) speaks in support of overriding a Senate committee and retrieving a dead bill during the Wyoming Legislature's 2024 budget session. (Maggie Mullen/WyoFile)

by Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—Sen. Dave Kinskey showed no interest Tuesday in letting the traditions of the Wyoming Senate stand in the way of civilians who want to carry firearms into public schools. 

A bill that stripped state and local governments’ authority to create gun-free zones in places like schools, college dormitories, the Wyoming Capitol and county commission meetings had died the night before, voted down 3-2 by the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

But on Tuesday morning, Kinskey (R-Sheridan) and other far-right members of the Senate were undeterred and willing to overrule that committee, Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and the chamber’s rules committee to bring legal concealed carry to nearly every public space in the state. Their tactics disregarded long-established norms in the Wyoming Legislature, and, to Driskill, they amounted to “idiocy” and were “sad.” 

Kinskey, a Harvard-educated attorney, told the rancher from Devil’s Tower not to take it as a slight. 

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) speaks on the Senate floor during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

“It’s nothing personal, it’s about a bill that is critical to the protection of our Second Amendment rights,” he said on the Senate floor. “It needs to come out to this floor and it needs to come out to this floor today.” 

In a series of roll call votes Tuesday, a majority of the Wyoming Senate overruled their body’s rules committee, the Senate president and the Senate Judiciary Committee, each by a one-vote margin.

With that, House Bill 125 – Repeal gun free zones and preemption amendments was resuscitated. Shortly thereafter, the Senate passed the bill easily, the first of three votes on the matter. 

It’s legislation with potential to change the lives of Wyoming residents: If HB 125 clears the Senate unchanged and becomes law, K-12 administrators won’t have the right to know who in their school has a hidden handgun. (The legislation does not allow students to carry guns into schools.) Gun-toting lawmakers prone to making personal attacks could soon be commonplace in the State Capitol. County commissioners and town councilors, meanwhile, could soon have to make tough calls in tense meetings not knowing if those in attendance are armed. 

The Wyoming Capitol building during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Sens. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), Brian Boner (R-Douglas), Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), Evie Brennan (R-Cheyenne), Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), Tim French (R-Powell), Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), Bob Ide (R-Casper), Stacy Jones (R-Rock Springs), Kinskey, John Kolb (R-Rock Springs), Dan Laursen (R-Powell), Troy McKeown (R-Gillette), Tim Salazar (R-Riverton), Charles Scott (R-Casper) and Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) voted in favor of retrieving the dead bill so it could be considered again on the Senate floor.

For and against

Late the night before, following a dramatic dispute over budget negotiations, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard impassioned testimony from gun lobbyists backing the legislation, and teachers and parents concerned about lawmakers inviting a deluge of firearms into what are intended to be safe spaces. Committee members Sens. Cale Case (R-Lander), Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep), Bill Landen (R-Casper), Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) and Dan Furphy (R-Laramie) listened and deliberated for nearly 2.5 hours.

Lobbyists like Wyoming Gun Owners’ Aaron Dorr sought to make the case that HB 125 was a matter of public safety. 

Aaron Dorr of Wyoming Gun Owners lobbies members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Our members are sick and tired of seeing dangerous criminals walk into gun free zones and murder innocent people who can’t fight back,” said Dorr, whose members have been accused of bullying and intimidating members of the Legislature. “Wyoming doesn’t have many gun-free zones. But these areas — schools, the Capitol — are a real problem that this bill was designed to address.” 

Bouchard, a septic tank service provider by trade who called himself a “gun rights expert” in committee, spoke supportively of HB 125.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) discusses gun legislation during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“If you look around this building, what stops people from coming in here?” he said. “Bad guys can come in here if they wanted to.” 

Another gun lobbyist, the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Nephi Cole, pointed out that Wyoming wouldn’t be the first state to usher firearms into public places like state capitols.

“I’d like you to know there are 21 states where concealed carry in the capitol is legal right now,” Cole said. “There are 11 states that allow unlimited concealed carry on campus.” 

There have been “zero” incidents in any of those states as a result of those policies, he said. 

But Andy Pelosi, with the New York-based Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, told the same committee members Cole was misrepresenting the data. 

“Unfortunately, that’s untrue,” Pelosi said via Zoom. Ahead of the meeting he emailed committee members a list of incidents involving guns on campuses where firearms are allowed. “Thirty-five incidents,” he said, “and that is really only scratching the surface.” 

Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) and Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) present legislation repealing most gun-free zones to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Lobbyists representing schools and municipalities also pushed back on the Legislature’s attempt to eliminate local control over gun regulations. 

Tate Mullen, with the Wyoming Education Association, agreed that Wyoming has a “strong history” of Second Amendment advocacy. 

“However … it also has a well-documented history of balancing Second Amendment rights and our citizens’ safety and security,” Mullen said. “In fact, the majority of our state’s earliest towns and communities had ordinances specifically prohibiting carrying a firearm, either openly or concealed within town limits.”

A lobbyist for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, Justin Schilling, detailed that history. Cheyenne, he said, outlawed the open or concealed carrying of guns in town in 1867. Casper, Lusk and Worland all followed with similar regulations over the next four decades. 

“The irony is that the popular sentiment in Wyoming during the literal Wild West stands in polar opposition to the year 2024,” Schilling said, “surpassed only by the thought that Wyoming cities and towns that literally started making local decisions on firearms regulations 157 years ago somehow suddenly can’t be trusted with the responsibility.” 

… Wyoming cities and towns that literally started making local decisions on firearms regulations 157 years ago somehow suddenly can’t be trusted with the responsibility.”  JUSTIN SCHILLING

After listening to the testimony, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) told the committee he’d need to overhaul the legislation in order to get on board. Substantial amendments to HB 125 struggled to gain traction in the House, where the gun bill introduced by Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) sailed through. But in the Judiciary Committee, Case promptly made big changes: An amendment restored school districts’ authority to create firearm regulations that everybody — not just staff — would have to abide by. He also expanded language that allows local governments to prohibit the open carrying of firearms. 

Soon after, the changes were moot. 

Voted down

As a roll call vote to advance HB 125 out of the Judiciary Committee progressed, senators were split 2-2. Landen, the chairman, was the deciding vote. He waited eight seconds, then uttered “no.” 

Earlier in the night, the retired Casper College instructor told his fellow Senate Judiciary Committee members how he’d been present during a murder-suicide on his campus a dozen years ago. Having a gun, he said, wouldn’t have made a difference — the bloodshed happened too fast.

Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) listens to lobbyists during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Nobody … who advocates for these bills ever sat down and talked to me about that day to find out what happened and what my observations were,” Landen said. “I just find that interesting.”

Observers believed the committee’s 3-2 vote had ended the 2024 iteration of a many-times-tried bill. 

Its death, however, lasted just half a day.  

After being revived, the entire Senate heard Case’s attempt to amend HB 125 — for the second time. 

“This is a cultural divide. There are people terrified about this,” Case said Tuesday evening. “We’re doing a disservice to people in Wyoming. Just because we can jam this through without the amendment doesn’t mean that we should.”

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) argued HB 125 stripped Wyoming parents of a right to ensure their children’s safety. 

“Do … constituents not have a right to protect their children by ensuring that nobody that is unqualified to use a weapon, untrained to use a weapon can be in their [children’s] vicinity while they’re in school?” Rothfuss said. “This legislation says, ‘no, I don’t have that right.’” 

Sen. Chris Rothfuss takes a drink after speaking in opposition to a bill repealing most gun-free zones in Wyoming during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The appeals failed to move the measure’s supporters. 

Far-right members of the Senate fought off attempts to alter the bill. At Kinskey’s urging, Boner, a HB 125 cosponsor, even withdrew an amendment to make “technical corrections.” 

“I’m very concerned that any amendment in the conference committee effectively kills this bill,” Kinskey said. “I would ask that you resist any amendment.” 

Senators fell in line with that request, then advanced the legislation with a voice vote. 

House Bill 125 will require two more readings in the Wyoming Senate. If it passes both, it will then head to Gov. Mark Gordon. 

Seven years ago, a similar guns-in-meetings bill died on the governor’s desk. Then-Gov. Matt Mead called that bill “murky” and vetoed it, blocking legislation that allowed concealed weapons in town and county, but not state legislative meetings, according to the Associated Press

If they stick to the schedule and don’t convene for extra days, lawmakers won’t have time to override any potential Gordon vetoes.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.