Some of my friends choose this time of year to leave Wyoming’s bitter cold behind for warmer climes. Not me.

It would be nice but it’s not in my cards. No, I’m stuck here waiting to hear those familiar words, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

If it’s February, I must be at a “stand your ground” meeting at the Wyoming Legislature. I’ve attended two of the annual events so far in 2018 and seen the usual results: votes of 8-1 in the House and 5-0 in the Senate for the latest iteration of the National Rifle Association’s favorite law.

Make no mistake: the NRA really wants to convince us to pass a needless, dangerous law only good for giving us a false feeling of safety. Wyoming is the lone reasonable holdout in the Mountain West and they desperately want to us to be the next notch in their belt, right next to the 25 “stand your ground” states.

Critics describe the legislation as the “shoot first bill.” They’re exactly right. Current law requires a person who is threatened with violence to attempt retreat, if it is safe to do so, before resorting to deadly force. Senate File 71 encourages them instead to escalate the situation with firearms. Further it promises to free shooters from fear of arrest, prosecution or any civil suit that might arise from blasting away.

Did you misperceive an “attacker’s” intentions, imagine a threat where none existed, pick a fight then find yourself “threatened,” or turn an argument into a gun-fight?

Well shucks, mistakes happen. No need to worry about the ramifications of punching holes in that kid. The Wyoming Legislature has your back.

“stand your ground” laws are unnecessary in Wyoming. We already have the “Castle Doctrine” on our books, which allows a person to protect their home without having to retreat. “stand your ground” laws expand this principle to everyplace else.

Do we have a problem in Wyoming with people being unable to defend themselves? Ever heard of an armed Wyomingite being hurt because they tried to cool-off a heated situation? No and no. As an SF-71 opponent told the Senate Agriculture Committee, it’s a solution in search of a problem.

House sponsor Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois) substituted the language from SF-71 for his own bill, HB-168. Both bills are still alive in their respective chambers. HB-168 has passed second reading in the House, and SF-71 passed Committee of the Whole in the Senate.

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The House bill already has enough sponsors to pass, but most other pro-gun legislation has been rejected by the Senate in recent years. If at least one of the bills is approved in both chambers but it has been amended, it must go to a conference committee to reach a consensus on its content.

The bill won’t solve any problems, but it would create plenty for law enforcement. The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police testified in opposition to the proposal last week.

The bill almost automatically assumes the person who stood his ground and killed his attacker acted in self-defense. The police must essentially make a snap judgment about whether to arrest someone who took another person’s life. In Florida’s infamous shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012, police let George Zimmerman go free before public outrage led to his arrest several days later.

The NRA and pro-gun activists who testified in Cheyenne argued that “stand your ground” makes Americans safer and reduces violence. But recent research suggests the opposite is true. A study in Epidemiologic Reviews found such laws have been associated with a nearly 7 percent increase in homicides.

As Vox.com reported, the researchers found “time and time again that when governments ease access to guns — and make it easier to use such deadly weapons — there are more gun deaths.”

The Tampa Bay Times studied almost 200 cases in which a “stand your ground” defense was used, and 70 percent resulted in dismissals. In nearly a third of the cases “defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.”

SF-71 states: “A person who uses reasonable defensive force may be wrong in his estimation of the danger or the force necessary to repel the danger as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief of the person and the person acts reasonably in the response to that belief.”

Who determines what is reasonable? There’s a thin line between a “reasonable” mistake and “get me a body bag.”

The shooter in a fatal encounter will not need to be justified in any reasonable sense of the term to walk free. They will only need to claim that they “believed” their life was in danger — and to convince a prosecutor that they’ll not be able to sell a jury otherwise.

The victim’s survivors, meanwhile, would have no legal recourse. They won’t even be able to sue the suspect who “believed” their loved-one was a bad guy — with or without cause. How is this justice?

Senate sponsor Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) and Salazar take a shooter at his word no matter what the circumstances are of the death. The goal is to keep gun owners out of criminal and civil courts for using their weapons.

“Basically many people have gone bankrupt trying to defend themselves in civil court when they were found innocent in criminal court,” Salazar said. “We try to defend your right to self-defense, but also protect you from the financial destruction of you and your family.”

Here’s how I see “stand your ground” playing out in many instances. This video in a parking lot is a disturbing incident between an older white man and a young black man over something that happened to the former’s car. The person videotaping this directs the younger one to walk away, and he does.

But the white man gets a small case from his car and quickly follows, the black man stops and a heated conversation ensues. The videographer implores them to stop, and the black man again moves on. But the older man puts on his holster and gun. He stalks his opponent, carrying his weapon in his hand. The cameraman is frightened, someone blocks the image and suddenly the screen goes black. We never learn exactly how this scary meeting ended.

Without someone videotaping the incident and with no witnesses, nothing would prevent the white man from claiming he had been attacked and stood his ground, firing to save his own life and fatally wounding the man he harassed. It would probably be difficult to sort out what happened so the killer might go free that day after questioning.

If the police report convinces a prosecutor to go to trial, it would be nearly impossible to disprove the defendant’s claims and win a conviction. When the standard for conviction is what was in the defendant’s head at the time of a incident, even the best prosecutor is toothless. Jurors may be sympathetic to a senior Caucasian who was in a dark parking lot fearing that a younger African American attacked him, so he had no choice but to shoot him.

The victim’s family might try to sue in civil court, but bills like SF-71 and HB-168 would give the killer immunity.

Salazar and Bouchard can cite all of the made-up scenarios they want to portray shooters as heroes, but this is how “stand your ground” plays out in real life. The Legislature needs to stand its ground for all of us — even those who don’t understand how they are at risk — and kill this bill.

Are there 15 senators with the courage to stand up to the NRA and the extreme right’s emotional demand for this law? We’ll soon find out.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. To use current vernacular, this is a nothing burger. As a pro-2A conservative, I find it a little embarrassing that this issue comes up time after time. I took a criminal law class in law school (but I’m not a lawyer) and the ex-prosecuter professor said there was no practical difference between safe-retreat and stand-your-ground laws. The former only apply if you can retreat in complete safely – which is rare in this day of firearms. The latter do not conver “judge-jury-executioner” rights to shoot anyone you like. Even the Vox article said of stand your ground laws, “They’re not free get-out-of-prison cards.”

    Mr. Drake says “When the standard for conviction is what was in the defendant’s head at the time of a incident, even the best prosecutor is toothless.” Yet the long time common-law standard for justifiable (self-defense) homicide is “if the person reasonably believes that the killing is absolutely necessary in order to prevent serious harm or death…” according to https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Justifiable+or+Excusable+Homicide. This so-called reasonable person standard has been the bane of prosecutors for a very long time, but judging by prison populations, not insurmountable.

    Mr. Drake’s pitch and that of the pro stand-your-ground politicians prove one thing: Wyoming is a great place for windies!

  2. Don’t worry, the trial lawyer’s lobby is going to gut it. Numerous and complicated laws are their bread and butter. They were against the Castle Doctrine Law a few years ago, but it passed anyway. People with brains aren’t paying attention right now in sufficient numbers, so the lawyers should be able to kill this bill and make it so that if you ever have to use deadly force to save yourself or a family member you will spend the next several years (and many, many thousands of dollars) defending yourself in court.