CHEYENNE — Sen. John Kolb, a freshman Republican from Rock Springs, had something to say.
It was just the second week of session, and his Senate Judiciary Committee was already hearing its fourth bill of the year related to firearms: Senate File 137 – Firearms preemption-amendments and applicability. In that short amount of time, Kolb — to his surprise and exasperation — had already been labeled a “gun grabber” for his work on the committee.
Special interest groups often target lawmakers for their voting records. But up to that point, neither Kolb nor the rest of the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee had come close to rejecting a gun bill. The then under consideration bill also appeared to have the committee’s support in a year where interest has been high for Second Amendment legislation.
But after testimony in support of the measure from Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) — a former gun lobbyist and the founder of hardline Second Amendment lobbying group, Wyoming Gun Owners — Kolb responded, not with a question, as is procedure, but with a statement.
“Well, Senator Bouchard, I got my first official gun grabber email,” Kolb said. “Which I’m pretty appalled about, because I’m not about that. I’ve got a lot of guns. I expect I got more guns than anyone else in this room. I don’t like that much, and I don’t know why I get these [emails] when I haven’t made a decision.”
When Kolb did make a decision, it was to join three of his colleagues on the committee in advancing the bill by a 4-1 vote. But that wasn’t the end of it.
After the meeting, Bouchard — according to an eyewitness and security camera footage reviewed by WyoFile — met Kolb in the hallway. There, the eyewitness said Kolb asked Bouchard to “call off” the members of his former lobbying group, who had been attacking him on his perceived lack of support for Second Amendment legislation. Bouchard, who no longer has an active role with the organization, refused. Expletives were exchanged in a heated confrontation, according to the eyewitness, who asked not to be named for this story.
The two senators have since shaken hands and made up since that March 12 altercation, each said in separate interviews.
But the influences and tensions that inspired that near-scuffle in the Capitol extension have maintained a constant presence throughout the 2021 session, and the confrontation underscores how influential the gun lobby is in Wyoming’s conservative politics.
In a busy year for gun legislation, the question now is whether the political pressure from groups like WyGO, or genuine fears from constituents regarding their Second Amendment rights, are driving conversations in the Capitol.
Pressure from the outside
Since the start of session, Wyoming Gun Owners has exerted pressure on lawmakers and lobbyists operating on gun legislation through action alerts, Facebook posts and advertisements intended to motivate their followers to contact their lawmakers.
It’s not a new tactic for WyGO, which has been a forceful presence in Wyoming politics for the last decade. Now operated by Iowa-based conservative activist Aaron Dorr, the group played a key role in the ousting of several moderate Republican lawmakers in last year’s Republican primaries, attracting the ire of top lawmakers and earning an investigation from the Wyoming Attorney General.
Those tactics continued during this year’s legislative session, even while Dorr — a registered lobbyist with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office — has yet to testify on any of the bills currently working their way through the Legislature. For example, WyGO accused the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), of working to hold up SF 81 behind the scenes. However, Nethercott had voted for the bill, and it had passed her committee unanimously.
“Contact the Senate Judiciary Committee now,” a recent WyGO advertisement said, with an overlay of Nethercott on the screen and an accusation she was “blocking” the bill from being heard on the floor. “Tell them to pass the Second Amendment Preservation Act so that Wyoming cops can focus on real criminals, not [President Joe Biden’s] anti-gun politics.”
WyGO also railed against critics of gun bills like Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police executive director Byron Oedekoven, who has raised concerns about several bills before the Legislature this year. These include the Second Amendment Preservation Act (a bill that would exempt Wyoming from enforcing federal gun laws it considers unconstitutional) and House Bill 116 – Concealed carry-residency requirement-2, which would allow out-of-state residents to conceal carry weapons without a permit.
If passed, Oedekoven argued both bills could make the jobs of law enforcement more difficult, and potentially put officers at-risk of breaking the law.
But WyGO saw things differently.
“Taxpayer funded anti-gun lobbyist Byron Oedekoven says that you hate cops if you support the Second Amend. Preservation Act,” the organization wrote in a March 18 Facebook post. “Loser.”
At his next meeting in the Capitol on March 24, Oedekoven showed up to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee with a laminated form certifying his lifelong membership with the National Rifle Association: proof that while he was opposing the bill, he had financially supported Second Amendment preservation efforts “for a considerably long time.” But the negatives of Senate File 134, he said, would far outweigh the potential benefits.
“[Potential wrongdoers] might be the bodyguard or the lookout for nefarious activity,” he told lawmakers. “It would appear by this I would merely need to encounter their concealed weapon and complement them on their choice of weapon, style of carry, and turn them loose.”
The bill advanced out of committee 5-0.
Lobbying, or federal government fears?
It’s been a busy year for gun legislation in Wyoming. Of the eight bills introduced this year related to Second Amendment rights, four remain alive as of this writing, while two of the bills that were defeated were “mirror bills” whose counterparts have advanced.
Is the notable amount of gun legislation the result of political pressure? Lawmakers say this year’s flurry of gun bills is less related to political pressure than it is to anticipated federal actions by President Joe Biden, who has pledged to impose greater federal gun controls that Republican lawmakers have sought to preempt.
Groups like the National Rifle Association as well as the National Shooting Sports Foundation have maintained a presence in the Wyoming Capitol this year, albeit on less controversial bills like Rep. Bob Wharff’s (R-Evanston) concealed carry bill, Sen. Ogden Driskill’s (R-Devil’s Tower) bill to repeal gun free zones and Senate File 155 – Limiting firearm seizure and regulation during emergencies. (Neither representative for the NRA or NSSF would go on-record for this story.)
“People are very concerned about their Second Amendment gun rights, because they feel like they can’t trust the federal government,” Kolb said in an interview. “I think that’s the reason why I was concerned. It’s not like I got 2,000 emails, but I got a lot of emails from people wanting something done. They’re frustrated and scared the federal government is going to make some onerous rule that will cost us our personal Second Amendment rights. And I don’t put it past this federal administration to do any of those things.”
But the rush to address those frustrations has resulted in the Senate pushing through bills that, in their members’ admissions, weren’t perfect or did not embrace the opinions of experts. In a second reading debate on Senate File 67 – Repeal gun free zones and preemption amendments this week, Sen. R.J. Kost introduced an amendment that would assuage the concerns raised by educators at the committee level by making the gun-free-zone repeal optional for school districts and community college districts. The amendment failed.
Preparing to pass the Second Amendment Preservation Act on March 24, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) introduced an amendment that would essentially gut the bill, turning the legislation from a mandate for law enforcement to defy federal gun laws into a process to petition the Attorney Generals’ office to act on a perceived violation of someone’s gun rights.
Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said the amendment preserved the “heart and soul and spirit” of what they hoped to accomplish with the bill, while others said the amendment would make what appeared to be an unconstitutional bill into a constitutional one. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) argued that support for the legislation even as amended was “lukewarm,” and that he didn’t support the bill.
“If the title were not ‘Second Amendment Preservation Act,’ we would not pass this bill,” Rothfuss said. “Because it’s just not ready. There are a lot of flaws in its construction, there are a lot of ways it would need to be improved, there are a lot of scenarios that should be thought through. This is a pretty big deal, and the type of thing interim committees work on.”
In the eyes of the most staunchly pro-gun legislators, however, the Hicks amendment was an effort to water down the bill and give Republicans a pro-gun vote on their record that was ultimately meaningless.
“This guts it,” Bouchard said. “And I would like to call for a recorded vote. All the things I just heard, that we’re going to fight against them, ‘we’re gonna fight, we’re gonna fight, we’re gonna fight.’ […] “There’s no enforcement in this, there’s just a bunch of nice words.”
The amendment passed with Sens. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), Bouchard, Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), Tim French (R-Powell), Tom James (R-Rock Springs), Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) and Tim Salazar (R-Riverton) voting against it.
After that vote, Bouchard criticized his Republican colleagues for altering the bill to make them appear superficially “pro-gun.”
“They made it into a cover bill,” he wrote in a Facebook comment under a Cowboy State Daily article describing the vote. “Bill with good title and no substance…for use on re-election. Standard play by the RINOS.”
But Senate leadership says the language change was intended to not only address their constituents’ fears about their Second Amendment rights, but also to avoid putting themselves in a position Nethercott described as potentially violating their oath of office to uphold the constitution by voting for legislation that was potentially unconstitutional.
“We’re really under some pretty good stress between personalities, particularly in the Senate,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said. “We’ve traditionally stayed out of that. I think it’s time that leadership pulls up and these groups realize this negative advertising … maybe they’ve won some races – but I can assure you, as far as the whole body goes, it’s very repulsive, and it doesn’t help.”
“We know there’s a social media campaign out there to try to drum up opposition,” Hicks said Friday morning. “But it was a bad bill. You heard the debate. It was unconstitutional, it targeted law enforcement and it targeted local governments. What we did was set up the full force and weight of the state executive, the Attorney General’s office and the legislature behind gun owners. You can argue we gutted the bill, but if you’ve got a bill that is a bad bill, our job is to come out with a much better product.”
And at the end of the day, Driskill said, the House of Representatives – or even Gov. Mark Gordon – has the authority to fix or reject bills it doesn’t like.
“There are a lot of safeguards in place,” Driskill said.