Here’s an interesting political question: When you’ve got Wyoming’s powerful gun lobby lined up on one side, and all of the state’s educational interests on the other, who wins?
That scenario played out in the Senate Education Committee last week, with surprising results. Especially for the gun lobby.
It saw its bill, the Wyoming Repeal Gun-Free Zones Act, passed by the panel, 3-2. Only what came out of the committee process wasn’t the gun lobby’s bill at all, but a measure designed to help keep guns out of schools and other public places if officials don’t want them.
After hearing highly dubious testimony from supporters of House Bill 114 that schools, campuses and other public places will actually be safer with a large percentage of the population packing heat, legislators overwhelmingly said they want local officials to have the power to decide if they’ll let that happen. Even in a pro-gun state like Wyoming, gun advocates don’t always win.
Thank you, Senate Education Committee. You’ve restored at least some of my faith in the political process during a session when it’s been at low ebb, thanks to right-wing Republicans. Their success in killing an anti-discrimination bill to protect gays and lesbians by resorting to a pack of lies and scare tactics was beyond reprehensible.
Most of the same people behind that effort are backing HB 114, and they seemed pretty confident at the outset of the hearing. Except for one thing: There were rumblings about a substitute bill. Many were passing each other copies of the purported changes, but it only contained every other page, so precisely what the other side was up to wasn’t clear.
At the start of the hearing, several asked about the substitute bill, and were told there wasn’t one. Technically, that was correct, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
While there were many legislators ready to testify, all but a couple decided to put their faith in the big gun, the “expert witness” they lined up to testify. They fully expected John Lott, a pro-gun economist and political commentator, to dazzle the committee and the audience with statistics and anecdotal evidence to reach the conclusion that gun-free zones make schools less safe. Newsweek didn’t dub Lott “The Gun Crowd’s Guru” for nothing.
For a different view of the issue, please see this Washington Post article.
Lott, using statistics from the 11 states that allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons at schools and universities without restrictions, presented his argument that people who commit mass shootings do so in gun-free zones where the public is unarmed. He pointed out Utah hasn’t been the site of any mass shootings or other types of gun violence that had been predicted by opponents. I agree we’re all thankful for that.
Proponents of getting rid of Wyoming’s gun-free zones wrapped up their half of the testimony with the same gun rights activists who spoke at the House Judiciary Committee a few weeks earlier. Collectively they painted a picture of a peaceful place where everyone could feel at ease because the concealed carry crowd would be out doing its job: striking fear into the hearts of anyone thinking of shooting up a school, a theater or a mall.
They finished and sat back waiting to hear what the anti-gun contingent would say. Perhaps the most optimistic among them expected the other side to fold its tent, admit they were wrong and gratefully welcome them to their schools.
Instead, foes of HB 114 fired back, using some powerful ammunition: logic, facts and common sense. Virtually every educational organization in the state lined up to testify that the current laws prohibiting guns at schools, colleges, government buildings, athletic events and meetings of governmental entities are working, so the proposed “fix” isn’t necessary.
Representatives of K-12 and college students, faculty, administrators, staff and board members stood up and said a crowd of people carrying concealed guns to protect them isn’t welcome, despite people’s best intentions. Abandoning the security that comes with gun-free zones would make everyone — especially students — more afraid, and that would make it much more difficult for them to learn.
School insurance rates, several officials stressed, would go through the roof, if insurance was obtainable at all if HB 114 became law.
Moreover, the education coalition repeatedly said this isn’t an issue where state government should mandate anything; local control should prevail. If the elected representatives on school boards, college trustees, city council and county commission members want people to carry guns, they should be able to make that choice themselves.
That’s an argument that’s difficult for conservatives, even those on the extreme right, to counter, because it’s their own argument. The conservative mantra has always been local control is best, so it’s highly hypocritical for state lawmakers to do an about face and effectively say “people elected us, and what we say counts more than officials in your own communities.”
After both sides had their say, the committee went to work. Chairman Hank Coe (R-Cody) indicated the first order of business was consideration of a 14-page committee amendment to the three-page House bill.
The amendment gave control of whether to allow concealed carry of guns on now-prohibited public property to local authorities, whose decisions would not be subject to any appeal. Even if the respective board, council or commission approved such a provision, anyone carrying a concealed weapon would have to notify authorities of their presence before gaining entry to school grounds, college campuses or governmental meetings. That would include the Legislative Management Council, which oversees legislative policies and regulations.
The main sponsor of HB 114, Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) was indignant, and tried to chastise Coe for blindsiding him with a substitute bill.
Not so, Coe explained, it was offered as a committee amendment, which is the correct procedure. Once the amendment is adopted — as this one was, 3-2, with Coe voting in its favor — it is what the committee is left to consider, he said, and it’s what the panel will submit to the entire Senate when the bill is debated.
Jaggi and his supporters can scream their heads off — and they did, publicly and privately, because they now say it’s a gun-control bill — but they can’t change the fact the Senate committee did everything within the rules. Jaggi said Coe should have given him the courtesy of showing him the proposed changes before they were introduced, but it wasn’t required, and since the chairman was trying to substantially alter the bill to reflect what it’s opponents wanted included, it was an unrealistic expectation.
Well played, Sen. Coe.
The outcome of this political gamesmanship doesn’t sit well with Anthony Bouchard, president of Wyoming Gun Owners (WyGO), who is using his group’s Facebook page to accuse three “sneaky Republicans” on the Senate Education Committee of stomping on the rules to promote its anti-gun agenda — Coe, Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock) and Sen. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne).
A failed legislative candidate in 2014, Bouchard took pictures of many of the people who testified against HB 114 and immediately posted them on the website to show his fans who is to blame for the bill he’s labeled a “bad counterfeit.”
There was a time when I was featured on WyGO’s Facebook page too, along with Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Wyoming Tribune-Eagle Editor Reed Eckhardt, both of whom I consider great company. But all this recent activity means that to see my column on Bouchard’s Facebook page you now have to scroll down a long way.
Two things, Mr. Bouchard: Although your post singles out WyoFile, the Knight Foundation and me for our alleged “anti-gun agenda,” I’m the one you really should be upset with, because as a non-staff columnist what I write is my own opinion. And why couldn’t you have taken a new picture of my ugly mug? I was sitting right next to you at the SEC hearing. If you want to let people know who you’re targeting, let’s keep them up to date.
Thanks, though, for sharing the column. I can always use more readers.
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Correction: This column was corrected on 3/5/15. An earlier version incorrectly said Lott emphasized Utah’s experience after passing a law similar to Wyoming’s HB 114. — Ed