CHEYENNE — Muzzleloading guns are legally firearms in Wyoming, and violent felons are barred from possessing them, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The ruling comes in an appeal by a convicted felon who says he thought he was allowed to own a black-powder rifle.
A spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says the ruling will come as a blow to some Wyoming residents who have felony convictions in the past but who are now dedicated black-powder hunters.
Governor favors change
Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Wednesday he would favor changing the state law to allow convicted felons to continue to hunt with black-powder guns.
In the ruling released Wednesday, the state Supreme Court upholds the conviction of Frank Alan Harris. He was convicted in a Casper court on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
According to the court ruling, Harris was previously convicted of aggravated robbery and robbery. He claimed in his appeal that he later relied on information from a sheriff's deputy in Converse County and an employee at a Wal-Mart store where he bought a black-powder rifle that it would not be unlawful for him to possess it.
The court ruling states that Harris entered a conditional guilty plea while reserving his right to appeal. He maintained that he didn't know he was breaking the law and that the state law was unconstitutionally vague.
District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl in December 2004 sentenced Harris to 18 to 24 months in the Wyoming State Penitentiary but suspended the sentence and imposed a two-year term of supervised probation.
In his appeal, Harris argued that Wyoming should adopt the federal definition of firearm because at least one federal statute excludes muzzleloading black-powder rifles.
However, the state Supreme Court noted that the Wyoming Legislature has prohibited convicted violent felons from possessing "any firearm."
"If the Legislature intended to create an exception for a muzzleloading black-powder rifle, it could have done so," says the court ruling written by Justice E. James Burke.
The court noted that Harris claimed that because black-powder rifles are excluded from the federal definition of firearms, a person of ordinary intelligence would not understand that it's illegal for a convicted felon to own such a rifle in Wyoming.
"His claim is without merit," the court ruling states. "By its plain terms, the statute prohibits an unpardoned violent felon from possessing any firearm."
Al Langston, spokesman with the state Game and Fish Department, said Wednesday his office has advised felons that it's permissible for them to hunt with black-powder guns. He said he has received a few such inquiries every year.
"Not a lot, once in a while, we get one," Langston said. "We get an inquiry, somebody who says, 'I've been in such and such a prison. I'm a felon.' They know they can't use modern firearms, but they're asking about archery equipment, or muzzleloaders."
Informed about Wednesday's court ruling, Langston said it won't have any significant effect on the game department.
But Langston said: "I know of some persons who are felons who are living very exemplary lives, who hunt with muzzleloaders. For a person like that who has his life together, who hunts with muzzleloaders, it could have a tremendous effect."
Pat Crank, Wyoming attorney general, said the court decision comes down to an application of state law and the state's definition of a firearm.
"There's a difference between the definition of a firearm under federal law and the definition of a firearm under state law," Crank said. "Federal law specifically exempts black-powder rifles as being a firearm."
Freudenthal said he believes the Supreme Court ruling was technically correct, but said he would favor changing state law to allow convicted felons to use black-powder guns.
"I think we need to go back and change our statute to comport with the federal definition," Freudenthal said. "I think it's worked well."