Faced with the prospect of new federal gun restrictions, the Wyoming House gave initial approval Wednesday to bills that sponsors say would exempt guns in the state from new regulations while possibly taking the fight to criminals who might choose to attack public schools.
The House voted in favor of a bill that would seek to block the federal government from restricting assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It amended the bill to specify that federal officials who tried to enforce any ban would be subject to state misdemeanor charges instead of felony charges.
President Obama has called for reinstituting a federal assault weapons ban following the massacre of 20 Connecticut first-graders by a gunman last month.
The House on Wednesday also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow citizens who hold concealed carry permits to carry guns on campuses of public schools, colleges and the University of Wyoming.
Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, sponsored the bill to exempt assault rifles and magazines from federal control. He said Wyoming should get its position on record before a new federal ban comes down.
"It is clearly a different case than trying to nullify something that's already in existence," Kroeker said.
Rep. Mary Throne, a Democrat and attorney in Cheyenne, said some states have tried such nullification laws in the past. She said such efforts were common in the years before the civil war and then during the civil rights movement, when some segregationist states tried to ignore federal law and practice nullification of federal laws.
"If we want to make a statement we can do it, but let's not let's not pretend that it's consistent with the Constitution, because it's not," Throne said.
The non-partisan Legislative Service Office has issued a legal analysis of Kroeker's bill that notes the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes federal laws as the supreme law of the land.
Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman, sponsored the bill to allow people who hold state-issued concealed carry permits to carry guns on school campuses. A retired teacher, he said he worries about the safety of schools in the state, noting that they're currently classified as gun-free zones under state law.
"Most of the horrific accidents that we've heard about have happened in gun-free zones, and the bad guys really don't care what the laws are," Jaggi said. "I'm a law-abiding guy, and if that's the law, I won't carry where I'm not supposed to carry. But the bad guys don't have that thought, they just want to do whatever they want to do."
Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said that as a former school principal he had serious concerns about the including elementary and secondary school provision in this bill. "I certainly don't want to get into a situation where we're creating a killing field inside of a school, but I think this bill creates the opportunity for many, many different things that could happen that would endanger kids."
Paxton said he could see where a student could get ahold of a firearm inadvertently if a teacher forgot to lock a drawer.
Rep. Stephen Watt, R-Rock Springs, said school administrators don't currently know if guns are coming into their schools or who has them.
"Someone who wants to bring a gun into a school will do it, and if they want to use it for evil, they'll use it for evil," Watt said. "It's that simple."
Chris Boswell, lobbyist for the University of Wyoming, said after the House vote that the university administration is concerned about the prospect of losing its authority to maintain its current policy of prohibiting students from carrying weapons either openly or concealed.
"I believe the trustees, through the regulation, have indicated that the risks may outweigh the benefits of allowing guns to be carried on the university campus," Boswell said, adding that the university has a police force.