Wyoming lawmakers reload over failed gun bills

2013-03-18T23:45:00Z 2013-03-19T08:00:05Z Wyoming lawmakers reload over failed gun billsBy LAURA HANCOCK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 18, 2013 11:45 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. -- The Wyoming Legislature has adjourned for the year, but the bullets continue to fly.

A handful of lawmakers are blasting House and Senate leaders for killing gun bills, shots those leaders deflect at pro-gun lobbyists and their aggressive tactics. As for the lobbyists, at least one says legislative leaders need to grow thicker skin.

The fallout from the legislative maneuvering is drawing the battle lines for the fight over Wyoming gun laws.

“Anything that was in the least bit controversial that leadership didn’t like, they just kind of killed it,” Rep. Stephen Watt, R-Rock Springs, said.

But House and Senate leaders disagree and insist they have solid records on gun rights. Gun rights supporters’ mass emails, mocking Facebook messages and attacks on legislators went too far, they say.

“I’ve been in the Legislature since 1995. I haven’t seen anything like this session,” Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said. “We welcome public input. What I strive for is civil discourse, to take out individual attacks and try to discuss the issues.”

Killing gun bills

One bill would have given the state instead of local governments final say on gun laws. The other would have punished federal officers or judges for enforcing federal laws and orders on magazines or semi-automatic firearms.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, accused both of being intentionally poorly written pieces of legislation.

Not so, said Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman. After all, after two gun bills were drafted, attorneys for the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America reviewed them, he said.

“For all of this vetting, for Sen. Nicholas to stand up to say these were poorly drafted, I was way disappointed,” Jaggi said.

Nicholas refused to bring the bills to the Senate floor for debate, effectively killing both pieces of legislation. Attacks from pro-gun groups inspired his decision, he told The Associated Press in February. Nicholas didn't return messages to the Casper Star-Tribune seeking comment for this story.

The fight over the gun bills also found a battleground in more subtle ways, supporters claim. Jaggi said Senate Education Chairman Hank Coe, R-Cody, didn't give Jaggi enough time to assemble supporters of a bill to allow concealed weapons at colleges, sporting events in publicly owned arenas and at public schools in some circumstances.

The hearing to discuss the bill was stacked with higher education leaders who opposed the bill, Jaggi said, making opposition appear stronger than it was.

"In my mind I think all of this was a pre-calculated thing,” Jaggi said.

But Coe said he gave Jaggi as much time as he could. Since there are more members of the House than the Senate, the Senate gets busy toward the end of the session when the House bills start piling up, he said.

"We have to post a notice of a meeting at least 24 hours ahead," he said. "It was pretty well-known we were doing the bill."

While more people testified against the bill, Coe said there was strong support. Not all opposition was from higher education, Coe said. A letter was read by a representative from the Wyoming High School Activities Association against the bill.

During the hearing, Coe pointed out that he and other legislators had a sterling record with the NRA. The committee ultimately took no action on the bill, which killed it. Such a move also wouldn't show up on NRA-assembled vote scorecards, important in a state where NRA ratings of legislators are highly prized.

Gun lobby tactics

During the session, a pattern between legislators and the gun lobby emerged.

Legislators would speak or act on a gun-related bill in a way that bothered Anthony Bouchard, executive director of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association. Then Bouchard would create anti-legislator memes, usually photos with overlaid political statements, and posted them to the Wyoming Gun Owners Association Facebook page.

One such image shows a Wyoming Republican lawmaker with President Barack Obama and text that suggests the lawmaker agrees with the president’s gun views. Another includes a legislator's photo with a pop culture reference that suggests the lawmaker has a small penis. Another shows a legislator with text saying the legislator thinks parents shouldn't be trusted with guns to protect their children.

The images were political posters posted on Facebook. They were easy to share. Both they and the comments they attracted quickly got under legislators' skin.

Lawmakers said the memes contained lies. Toward the end of the session, they began to publicly criticize Bouchard, culminating in Nicholas' decision to block bills from a floor vote. Bouchard, in turn, created more memes.

Bouchard said his memes are not meant to be taken literally. But the spirit of the message is accurate, he said.

For instance, just because there is a picture of a legislator and the president together doesn’t mean that the two met and discussed guns. But Bouchard said his is a “no-compromise” gun group. If legislators want to limit the Second Amendment, to him that means they are anti-gun.

He noted his memes were within his First Amendment rights and didn’t threaten anyone.

The responses on his Facebook page have not always been civil. To a meme of Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, one commenter suggested members of the public send him “hate mail and if you get a chance go to his auction and run up the bids and don’t pay.” Christensen works as an auctioneer.

Christensen received 1,500 emails about the issue, Ross told the Star-Tribune. The gun supporters were upset about an amendment Christensen proposed to a gun bill and one comment included an implied threat.

“So recall him, that is your only option unless someone caps his ass!” the comment said.

Bouchard said the comments are harmless. He believes gun owners are under increased scrutiny these days and gun owners are smart enough not to hurt a lawmaker.

“I think they need to get thicker skin and I think they need to start acting like leadership instead of a bunch of crybabies,” he said.

Not all of the gun lobby followed Bouchard's approach.

Bob Wharff, Wyoming executive director of the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said that he’d delete more comments if that were his Facebook page.

But he still works with Bouchard.

“Anthony and I make a good team because I like to see myself as a good cop and he’s a bad cop. We play good cop-bad cop,” he said. “And it’s like, either play nice or I’m going to turn you over to Anthony and let Anthony spank you.”

The vote war

When leaders smelled the Wyoming Gun Owners group nearby, they fought to avoid playing into the group's hands, even if it meant sparring with colleagues.

That's what happened on the House floor Feb. 12, when Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, requested a roll-call vote on an amendment to a bill that allows hunting with silencers, a bill the Legislature ultimately passed. A roll call vote would mean each lawmaker's vote would be noted for the record.

Lubnau immediately suspected the Wyoming Gun Owners wanted the roll call vote as a way to target lawmakers. He gave an impassioned speech decrying the move, which roused applause from some House members.

"I'm getting tired of this type of approach in legislating where we create fodder for what I believe are some unethical lobbying organizations, who then send out blast emails and then fundraising approaches based upon votes in the second and third reading," he said.

In the Wyoming Legislature, roll call votes are only recorded for the third and final vote. Earlier roll call votes could allow a lobbyist to say a lawmaker voted for or against an issue, when the matter at hand may not have much to do with the final vote.

But after the applause for Lubnau's speech, Baker defended the roll call vote. He denied it was grandstanding for any pro-gun group. The public deserves to know how lawmakers voted, he said, something not possible by the other voting methods -- saying "aye" or "nay" in unison or standing up from the desk.

The House took its roll-call vote and the amendment failed.

Baker and Lubnau said they worked out their differences. Lubnau, in fact, reintroduced the amendment the next day and it passed.

But each lawmaker remains steadfast in his views.

Baker continues to believe recording votes is a matter of principle. He wants more recorded votes.

"I'd like to see a recorded vote on, basically, all budget amendments," Baker said.

Lubnau remains frustrated by the gun lobby, specifically Bouchard and his Wyoming Gun Owners, and continues to speak out against them.

"The tools available to legislative leadership are fairly limited on how we address those types of unscrupulous tactics,” he said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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