CHEYENNE — “Stand your ground” bills in state legislatures across the country tend to be fraught. For proponents, the phrase “stand your ground” has become shorthand for the rights of law-abiding gun owners to use their weapons when necessary. For critics, it’s an ominous step toward a vigilante justice system, often racially tinged, where people perceived to be criminals are gunned down in the streets without consequence.

But shorthand aside, the legislation introduced in both the Wyoming House and Senate, meant to enshrine in statute the existing legal doctrine of self-defense, would make very real changes to state law by initially granting automatic immunity to suspects. Despite widespread support for the concept of allowing Wyomingites to defend themselves when threatened, lawmakers were not ready to back down on concerns about the immunity provisions.

“It’s not just the title of the bill that we’re voting on,” Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, pointed out during floor debate.

If it was, there is little question that the Republican-dominated Legislature would have passed the bills with minimal dissent.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who introduced the Senate version, said he has heard repeatedly from critics who say they support “stand your ground” while taking issue with the substance of his bill.

“They’ve said that on the whole bill, that they support the idea — but,” Bouchard said.

‘Awkward position’

The paradox of being ostensibly pro-gun but opposing, or at least criticizing, a bill that is one of the top priorities for groups like the National Rifle Association and Wyoming Gun Owners is not lost on those who spoke out against aspects of the measure.

“I did feel like I was in an awkward position,” Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police executive director Byron Oedekoven said. “Because we support the Constitution.”

In addition to supporting the Second Amendment and being a member of the NRA, Oedekoven said he agrees with the concept of “stand your ground.”

The objectionable provision is one that would bar police from detaining or arresting suspects in cases of assault or homicide if the individual in question credibly claimed he or she was acting in self-defense. Prosecutors would likewise be unable to charge a suspect in an alleged self-defense case unless they could prove to a judge beyond a reasonable doubt that legitimate self-defense had not been used, at which point the case could then proceed to a jury.

Bouchard and advocates of the “stand your ground” bill’s immunity clauses said they were necessary to prevent innocent individuals from being dragged through the criminal justice system, a process that can sometimes take years, only to be acquitted in the end.

Oedekoven said that is a noble goal but that the law would not only protect the innocent.

“The discussion is how to do deal with the good guy who ends up being placed in a very bad position,” he said. “(But) how do we actually deal with the bad guy who does the shooting?”

The bill’s immunity clauses left much unclear to both law enforcement and attorneys. For example, Oedekoven noted in committee testimony that the measure both stated that police should follow standard investigatory procedures when responding to cases where self-defense is claimed. But it also said they could not detain suspects without first determining guilt, which would violate standard procedure.

Likewise, the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association said a pre-trial hearing to determine guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” was not only unprecedented in the nation but confusing. At what point in the case would the hearing take place? Would it be in circuit court or district court?

Immunity taken out

Crafting legislation is a process, and both the House bill and Senate bill appeared from the start to be in flux. Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Dubois, sponsored his own version of “stand your ground” but then promptly amended it to substitute Bouchard’s text from the Senate bill. Bouchard, meanwhile, planned to bring amendments to his own bill. For example, he was going to suggest removing the prohibition on police detaining suspects in self-defense cases.

But before that happened, Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, called for stripping most of the immunity provisions from the bill. And before Perkins’ amendment came for a vote, the NRA and Wyoming Gun Owners sent a warning to lawmakers.

It wasn’t the kind of implicit warning that powerful groups wield without lifting a finger. Instead, NRA state liaison Travis Couture-Lovelady and Wyoming Gun Owners lobbyist Aaron Dorr hand wrote notes to most of the 30-member Senate to make their stance crystal clear.

The messages were written on notecard-size slips of paper that lobbyists use to call lawmakers into the lobby or provide them a quick piece of information before a vote. The slips offer just a few lines to get a message across. The gun lobbyists did not mince words.

“(B)oth NRA + WYGO will score the (Perkins) amendment as anti-gun vote + will report it as such to our members,” one version of the note read. “Pls oppose it.”

‘I don’t like bullies’

The reaction was swift. Perkins began his comments on the amendment by referencing the notes and refusing to withdraw his proposed changes. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, then rose to say that Senate rules barred the consideration of outside interests during deliberation and called for his colleagues to pass the amendment on that basis alone.

Kinskey declined to comment on the bill or the amendment but Perkins said he believes that sending the note led to four or five additional senators voting in favor of his amendment. It passed 22-8.

“They were trying to bully the Senate,” Perkins said in an interview. “I don’t like bullies.”

Sen. John Hastert, a senior Democrat, said he had never seen a note like the one sent regarding Perkins’ amendment. Perkins himself said he could count on one hand the number of ultimatums he’d received from lobbyists during his 12 years in the Senate.

Dorr said in an interview that the legislation was important to Wyoming Gun Owners membership and it was fair to let lawmakers know that the group was watching.

“Our note simply told the lawmakers we saw the amendment, we thought it was detrimental to the bill and we would report it down the road,” Dorr said.

Couture-Lovelady said that he was not authorized to talk to the media and referred a reporter to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Bill Cubin, a longtime GOP consultant, said that lobbying groups sometimes believe going to the mat is necessary.

“If the legislators who claim to be Second Amendment supporters don’t actually use their votes to support the Second Amendment and groups like the NRA threaten to call them out on it, that is perfectly legitimate,” he said, though noted he had not carefully followed the “stand your ground” bill.

Cubin added that lobbyists may have less leverage to play hardball at the Legislature than in Washington, D.C. Wyoming’s citizen lawmakers rely less on large contributions from outside groups and are rarely career politicians.

“The vast majority of legislators vote their conscience on every issue,” he said. “They’re not calculating.”

The Senate passed a few amendments backed by Bouchard and Wyoming Gun Owners that slightly rolled back Perkins’ changes. But the bill the Senate finally approved nonetheless stripped both the restrictions on law enforcement and the requirement for pre-trial hearing to determine guilt.

The Senate’s bill has been forwarded to the House, where it is awaiting consideration by the appropriations committee. Appropriations chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, had brought an amendment similar to Perkins’ on the House’s version of the bill, though he withdrew it at the last minute likely out of recognition that the Senate bill is the one that will eventually become law.

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said his chamber is unlikely to consider the House’s version of the bill and will simply wait to reconsider its own bill once it passes through the House.

“The House ... I think they sent us over a bad bill that ... they expect us to take care of,” Bebout told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “I think our bill will prevail.”

As for Bouchard, he said the Senate bill is probably as good as it’s going to get for “stand your ground” at the Legislature this year.

In the end, Perkins saw no shortage of irony in the fierce opposition to his amendment to a bill that he otherwise voted in favor of.

“In a private meeting with the NRA, I asked them if the bill as amended included a clear statement of ‘stand your ground’ and they said, ‘Yes it does,’” Perkins said. “The bill as amended has the support of the NRA.”