As I write this, I am aware of the pistol I often carry in my pickup, the 10-gauge shotgun leaning against the wall in my bedroom and my 15 or so hunting rifles, shotguns, black powder replicas and revolvers in the gun room.
I was born and raised in Newcastle with guns in my hand as soon as I showed the responsibility and judgment to handle them. My grandmother, who homesteaded in Crook County in 1910, and my father, a Wyoming attorney for over 40 years, taught me about the use of firearms. They taught me that a bullet fired from a gun is absolutely irreversible.
Because of this, my grandmother taught that it is the absolute responsibility of someone using or carrying a gun to care for the safety, concerns and sensitivities of those around him. This is just an application of the golden rule. Lest you think Grandma Fern was just some touchy-feely sentimentalist, she taught country schools in her 60s, living alone in the mountains outside Douglas. There, with her always, was her ancient .22 rifle and she was absolutely an expert in its use.
My father served in the Army and in courtrooms when life was literally on the line. Neither of these mentors of mine would have dreamed of carrying a firearm to a courtroom or to get a vehicle license or to a meeting of the city council, the county commissioners or the planning board.
For my grandmother, it would have simply been unforgivably bad manners, but for my father it would have been a betrayal of deep respect for the processes of a democratic republic. You see, my father didn’t see the law as he wished it was. He saw it as it really was and as it must be. This is what I’d like to bring to the debate about guns in government buildings.
First, contrary to what has been stated over and over by gun rights advocates, the state of Wyoming did not completely forbid any gun regulation but theirs. Quite the contrary, the statute on this actually begins with a very important exception which recognizes that cities have important concerns when it comes to guns. The statute says:
“Except as authorized by W.S. 15-1-103(a)(xviii), no city, town, county, political subdivision or any other entity shall authorize, regulate or prohibit the … ownership … or ammunition.”
Often in the law, the exception defines the rule so here is what cities are legally authorized by that exception to do:
“Regulate, prevent or suppress riots, disturbances, disorderly assemblies or parades or any other conduct which disturbs or jeopardizes the public health, safety, peace or morality in any public or private place.”
The Legislature has without question left cities with a very broad power to legislate with regard to firearms and the inherent danger to safety, health and public peace which they present. It is important to note that this power reserved to the cities is not just remedial but preventative.
The city can act to “prevent” disturbance. The city can “regulate” conduct which “jeopardizes” “safety” or “peace.” “Peace” here is meant as the legal “peace,” that is “a state of public tranquility.” It is broad enough to encompass the operation of the city government in a safe and civil fashion.
In an important and welcome recent U.S. Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the court found that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is an individual right (that is, not tied to being part of a militia). This is a very important, and to my mind, correct decision. But, in this very decision, the Supreme Court also said:
“… nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”
In the case of McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court declared the right to keep and bear arms “fundamental,” and applied it to all the states of the union. I think that a positive step was made for protection of the right. But again, that’s not the whole story on the issue before residents in Gillette and other Wyoming towns.
The Supreme Court said in the McDonald decision that even this fundamental right is not: “… a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever, in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
When, as recently occurred in Newcastle, openly armed groups appear at city council meetings to argue the dog ordinance (really) or at county commission meetings to oppose land-use planning, what is the purpose of carrying the firearm?
They are packing to intimidate elected officials into seeing things their way and to keep opposing voices from speaking out. Even if that’s not the subjective reason, it is the clear effect.
In the course of my 30-year legal career, I have been in courtrooms where, had firearms been present among the litigants, they would certainly have been used. There have been council and commission meetings that were equally heated. It only has to happen once and you can never have it back.
It seems to me that it is completely worthwhile, in light of new strengthened firearms rights, to think about our responsibilities over government buildings as “sensitive places,” places where we can speak our minds and do our business without worrying about whether the pistol needs to go inside or can just stay under the seat for the next trip to the country.
We spent a long time growing out of our “Dodge City” phase. We should, and we are legally empowered to, discuss whether we want to go back.
Doug Dumbrill, a former Gillette police officer, is an attorney in Gillette.