It’s hard to believe, but I actually agree with Wyoming Gun Owners: We both think the state’s new Second Amendment Protection Act is a sham.
Where we part ways is that while WyGO is fighting mad that it passed, I’m not upset.
Am I conflicted about this fleeting kinship with a group whose sole purpose appears to be using gun-grabber boogiemen and fictional assaults on our Second Amendment rights to rake in donations and sow political discord? You bet. It’s a prime example of the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows.
But I can live with knowing 43 House and 22 Senate members who approved the act can proudly tell gun-owning voters they stood up for their rights. Of course, no one in Wyoming actually needed any additional protections to keep their guns. It’s often said that Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state in the union, and we’ve long been one of the gun-friendliest states going. So the legislation is just a shameless political ploy, and one I would normally condemn.
But these same lawmakers killed WyGO’s Second Amendment Preservation Act, a dangerous bill that would have made law enforcement agencies and officers vulnerable to lawsuits for enforcing federal gun regulations. That was truly a public service.
The battle over the two SAPA bills is one of the strangest feuds I’ve ever witnessed in the Wyoming Legislature. It’s led to threats to lawmakers who were on the winning side, childish and harassing text messages exchanged between lawmakers and intense fighting between gun-rights groups.
And that’s just the beginning. While the “Protection Act” (I’ll call it SAPA 1) is now state law, backers of the “Preservation Act” (SAPA 2) are seeking revenge at the Aug. 16 primary election. They’ve promised a bloodbath.
What caused this mess, and what’s the difference between the two bills?
To untangle this weird web, let’s start with the 2020 GOP primary election, when WyGO targeted three Republican incumbents it branded “gun grabbers”: Sen. Michael Von Flatern of Gillette, and Reps. Dan Kirkbride of Chugwater and Bill Pownall of Gillette. All three lost, defeated by WyGO-endorsed candidates who also won in the general election.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), former WyGO director, sponsored a SAPA bill during the 2021 general session. In addition to preventing the enforcement of all federal gun laws in Wyoming, it required the attorney general to defend anyone accused of violating such laws.
It was too extreme for Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), who owns a lot of guns and is no Second Amendment foe. He successfully watered it down with amendments, to the point Bouchard actually voted against his own bill.
It passed the Senate, 24-6, but the House never even considered it.
This year, Bouchard returned with SAPA 2. It allowed any state agency or law enforcement officer who “infringed” on citizens’ Second Amendment rights to be sued. Successful aggrieved parties would receive a minimum or $50,000 per violation.
Hicks countered with SAPA 1. His bill prevented agencies and officers from knowingly enforcing unconstitutional federal gun laws. Violating the law is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a fine up to $2,000.
Since the Legislature met last year, a bill similar to Bouchard’s was approved in Missouri. Its constitutionality has been challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice and several Missouri agencies.
Wyoming senators with no stomach for a costly court fight the state might lose killed SAPA 2. Bouchard, who could only muster nine votes in the 30-member chamber, set his sights on Hicks’ bill. WyGO launched an all-out attack.
Its assault failed miserably. SAPA 1 was approved by about 3-to-1 margins in the Senate and House. Supporters included Gun Owners of America and the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.
The GOA calls itself the nation’s “only no compromise gun lobby.” It is positioned to the right of the NRA, which it charges represents the gun industry at the expense of gun owners.
To the extreme right of both groups is a coalition of a dozen state organizations, including WyGO. An outgrowth of the older National Association for Gun Rights, the cabal is led by WyGO Director Aaron Dorr of Iowa and his brothers, Chris and Ben Dorr.
Aaron Dorr accused the GOA of delivering “a knife to the back of Wyoming gun owners” by endorsing Hicks’ bill. But the GOA and others have accused the Dorrs of milking money from gun owners without actually lobbying for any meaningful pro-gun rights legislation.
Perhaps a duel could settle things. It sounds like both sides would like to slap the other with a glove and issue the ultimate challenge.
The GOA contends Hicks’ version “was simply a better bill capable of withstanding judicial scrutiny.” The group points to the law’s criminal penalties, which it calls “a huge deterrent to any official considering enforcing unconstitutional gun control.”
But the Tenth Amendment Center, a states-rights group, said SAPA 1 “includes a number of sleight-of-hand legislative tricks to make it look like a ban on state and local enforcement of federal gun control, but a close look at the text quickly reveals the measure is all bark and no bite.”
TAC’s Michael Boldin said the law prohibits agencies and officers from enforcing “unconstitutional” Second Amendment provisions. That means unlike SAPA 2, which bans all federal gun restrictions, the courts must rule on a federal law’s constitutionality before the state law applies.
SAPA 1 also prohibits using state appropriations to enforce federal gun laws. Boldin maintained this leaves the door open for Wyoming to use federal dollars for enforcement, and doesn’t bar the state from assisting federal agencies.
And those hefty penalties? Because the new law states one must “knowingly” violate it, Boldin said prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt one was fully aware his or her actions violated the law but did it anyway. That high bar, he predicted, means no one will ever be prosecuted.
It’s reasonable to conclude SAPA 1 won’t significantly change existing practices in enforcement of federal gun laws. It may not be completely toothless, but I’ll welcome it over an unconstitutional law any day.
WyGO promises to punish lawmakers who killed its bill. Campaigning is fine, but bullying and harassment can’t be tolerated.
WyoFile recently reported Hicks and others were subjected to profanity-laced, threatening phone calls and emails during the session. Legislative leaders should direct state law enforcement to investigate any potential criminal behavior.
WyGO is relentless in its attacks on “RINO traitors.” The acronym stands for “Republicans in name only.”
“The bottom line is that WyGO members are the most potent political fighting force in the state and everyone in Cheyenne knows it!” the group bragged on its website.
The most potent? We’ll find out in the August Republican primary, where WyGO says it has many challengers lined up to face unrepentant incumbents.
The 2020 election proved WyGO has some political muscle. It drove three lawmakers out of the Legislature and helped Bouchard defeat a primary opponent.
WyGO kept taunting Von Flatern after he lost. “Your mistake was in thinking that WyGO was like every other lobby group, that we would eventually want to play nice,” it posted on Facebook. “We don’t want to play nice, we want to save our freedoms.”
WyGO also wants to keep stoking members’ fears to prime its money machine. The Dorrs and competitors like the GOA may not agree about much, but they have one thing in common: A well-timed failure can keep them laughing all the way to the bank.