Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) speaks during the first day of the legislature’s in-person session, March 1, 2021. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

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.

Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) on the first day of the legislature’s in-person session, March 1, 2021. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

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.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) answers a fellow senator’s question regarding a bill during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

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.

Byron Oedekoven, the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, holds up a copy of his lifetime membership to the National Rifle Association at a recent committee meeting. Oedekoven had been accused of being anti-gun by a Second Amendment lobbying group called Wyoming Gun Owners. (Screengrab/YouTube)

“[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.)

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“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. 

Controversial bills 

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.”

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) speaks on a bill before a vote during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) looks on. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

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.

‘Negative advertising’

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.”

Sen. Anthony Bouchard responds to a constituent’s complaints about his vote on the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which he has been a vocal supporter of. (Screengrab/Facebook)

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. 

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  1. LOL!! . . . this is HILARIOUS!! . . . the ONLY thing that the Democrats under basement Joe Biden are talking about in D.C. is MORE GUN CONTROL!!! But for us pro-second amendment people, we just “talk about it too much!”

    Hypocrite much????

  2. Reading that Wyoming Gun Owners are run by Aaron Dorr puts all in perspective. The Dorr Brothers are dangerous. Their main issue is Constitutional Carry which would abolish all gun laws. They have gone into several state legislatures and wrecked havoc. But their agenda goes far beyond abolishing all gun laws, for instance, organizing anti-mask rallies. The Dorrs are scam artists, using donations to enrich themselves. Wyoming legislators better be very careful of being pressured towards that kind of extremism. NPR did a great deep investigatory podcast on them. They should not be welcome in Wyoming.

    1. If people would actually want to look into the Dorr brothers, there is plenty of information out there about how shady they truly are.

      Unfortunately, lemmings see something about protecting the second amendment and they swallow it up hook, line, and sinker.

      Quit giving crooks support and recognition.

    2. Yep! . . . the Dorr brothers ARE dangerous. Dangerous to anti-freedom politicians. If you don’t believe it, just ask all the Wyoming politicians they have primaried out the last two election seasons!!

      Good for the Dorrs!!!

      1. Keep donating to them so they can pad their pockets and help with all their legal issues. As I said above, hook, line and sinker.

        Hope you don’t choke on what they’re feeding you.

  3. As usual, the gun-nutty crowd demonstrates its paranoia (a fear of something imaginary). Ride ’em little broomstick cowboys!

  4. I don’t quite understand it. I have spent my entire life in the region, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. I have never been fearful of needing a gun to protect myself. I fully appreciate gun ownership as far as hunting needs and varmint reduction. I have no problem with that. I think people have gone gun crazy for whatever reason. It’s a thorny problem. The thing I think about is that prisons are filled with people who only wanted to threaten someone with a gun and ended up shooting them. Guns have too short of a trigger.

    1. Nancy- what part of ” a well regulated militia being necessary…” do elected officials not even try to see?

      Where is that militia? Who is training them ; regulating them , deploying them ? Do only citizens enrolled in that militia have the gun rights … why or why not ? For all its sparsity of words that ” militia ” thing has never been constitutionally tested . What does infringement even mean today vs. the 1790 definition .

      Then there is that pesky comma that divides the Second Amendment into two distinct and maybe separate suppositions.

      A former Chief Justice of the SCOTUS once said with all sincerity that the Second Amendment is the weakest cluster of words in the Constitutional framework. Never mind the reason the Second even exists at all has nothing to do with having citizens armed against possible tyranny, it was written to give landed slave owners the right to keep their slaves in check and engage in hot pursuit with muskets when theyr an off… Somehow we never get around to that contextual argument from the era the Founders lived and worked in. The 2nd is implicitly racist by today’s standards when you consider the way it was sourced at all.

      1. Indeed . . . exactly who is the militia according to the people that wrote the second amendment?

        “Who are the militia? are they not ourselves. Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American. What clause in the state or federal constitution hath given away that important right . . . . The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” ~ Tenche Coxe, member of the Confederation Congress who later served as our first assistant secretary of the treasury.

  5. I noted that the author described the lobbying group as a “hard line” second amendment organization. The description appeared to carry with it a negative connotation. I’m not sure that any group that stands up for clearly defined constitutional freedoms should be called “hard line.” For instance, I’ve never heard the term “hard line” used to describe freedom of the press, freedom from slavery or the right to vote. To me, such terms are meant to sway opinion rather than report a story. If so, it undermines the unbiased middle ground I would hope WyoFile is trying to maintain.

    1. Really? I see nothing wrong with describing an organization unwilling to entertain alternatives on a position that the vast majority of Americans, myself included, believe are wrong, as “hard line”. Their unwillingness to debate or compromise on .that position is the antithesis of “centerist. “My way or the highway way” is not a tenable position–it is an attempt to impose their anti-American, authoritarian views on the country’s majority.

      As for “clearly defined constitutional freedoms”, the current interpretation of the Second Amendment” is not so clearly defined or defensible..

    2. Nothing “unbiased” about Nick Reynolds. I made frequent criticism of his biased word choices when he reported for the Caspar Trib. Don’t expect anything different now he’s with WyoFile.

      1. Complaining about 1 word in Nick’s piece seems silly. However, judging from the non-sensical and biased piece you just had published here, it would seem you have the lions share of the market in regards to silly articles.

    3. “WyoFile: “Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) — a former gun lobbyist and the founder of hardline Second Amendment lobbying group, Wyoming Gun Owners ”

      Robert: “I noted that the author described the lobbying group as a “hardline” second amendment organization. The description appeared to carry with it a negative connotation”

      It might indeed be a bias. It might carry a negative connotation, might not. A hardline group can be in support of gun rights or against it. Is “hardline” really a misplaced term in this story? “Definition of hard-line: advocating or involving a rigidly uncompromising course of action”. Sounds like the shoe fits the group.

      WyoFile comes across as left-leaning and favoring “moderates” so maybe there is an issue here; however, reading too much into a single word or action is the problem with everyone these days as the story clearly illustrates. We are too quick to pull the trigger and be outraged over small stuff (word “hardline”) while, say, China is eating our lunch and selling it back to us.

      Not much wiggle room on slavery but politicians do indeed have different views on voting rights as we clearly see on the national political stage. What’s constitutional is open to debate.