CASPER — Wyoming lawmakers on Thursday defeated legislation that would have prevented some people with mental illnesses from buying guns.
The legislation would have required the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to submit certain mental health records to a federal database used for background checks while purchasing firearms.
The bill, which failed by a 9-5 vote, essentially mirrored federal legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump in the 2018 budget.
Introduced in the wake of a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the legislation – entitled “Fix NICS” – was intended to capture people with severe mental illnesses who might otherwise be missed by the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System: a seemingly easy fix for those who say that mental illness, not access to guns, is the main driver behind mass shootings in the United States.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Wyoming is currently last in the nation in terms of the number of disqualifying mental health records submitted per capita.
To date, authorities in Wyoming have provided such records 13 times.
However, many argued the bill unfairly stigmatizes mental illness and could have been a precursor to a “Red Flag Law,” which allows law enforcement to intervene and seize someone’s firearms in the instance the owner could present an immediate danger to themselves or others – a process critics say robs gun owners of due process.
During the summer, hardline Second Amendment groups like Wyoming Gun Owners began rallying support online to oppose the legislation.
At the meeting, gun rights supporters like former Casper Sen. Kit Jennings, a Republican, said such laws could lay the groundwork for government-sponsored gun seizures in the future.
Some in Wyoming – like Sheridan-based mental health expert Paul Demple – criticized the Fix NICS legislation as a law based on fear, rather than fact, telling the Sheridan Press in August that the bill is based on a “pervasive and misleading national rhetoric that all mentally ill people are dangerous,” according to the newspaper.
Others have argued that the language of the bill is overly broad, and could open the door for greater, more restrictive regulations down the road.
In written testimony, Marti Halverson – a Republican and a former member of the Wyoming House of Representatives – asked whether some of the requirements to report could include the turning over of temporary mental health adjudications, or could commit Wyoming to provide any records the federal government deems necessary under future administrations.
“Once committed to reporting, will Wyoming be subject to penalties for any failure to report?” she asked in written testimony posted online ahead of the meeting. “Will we be threatened by a federal government withholding highway or Medicaid funds? Or other federal threats dreamed up by unelected bureaucrats and elected gun haters? Does the legislature contemplate an ‘escape clause’ whereby Wyoming will exit the program if reporting requirements become too invasive or egregious?”
However, the legislation would have provided a process for people otherwise banned from purchasing guns to appeal that ruling – a right blacklisted gun owners lack under current federal law.
“This was equated to a red flag law,” Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, wrote in a text message. “Technically, they now have fewer gun rights. If you are honest when you buy a gun, you will be turned down. Right now, you don’t have the right to appeal your mental health status.”
While closely contested, the final vote was sharply divided between the House and Senate.
While Von Flatern was the only member of the Senate who voted for the bill, five out of nine members of the less conservative House of Representatives (including Democrats Charles Pelkey and Sara Burlingame) voted in favor of the bill, including Republicans Reps. Bill Pownall, Clark Stith and Dan Kirkbride. No votes included no Sens. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, Brian Boner, R.J. Kost and Tara Nethercott, as well as Representatives Chuck Gray, Mark Jennings, Tim Salazar and Art Washut.
“This bill would have created a procedure where someone could lose their gun rights simply by reaching out for counseling,” Gray said in a statement. “This bill would have not only compromised our personal liberty, it would have discouraged people from seeking professional help for their problems.”
Testimony on the bill lasted several hours, with feedback from groups ranging from the state’s judicial branch to the National Rifle Association, each of whom, Boner said, expressed concerns about the structure of the bill itself, which has been quietly debated throughout the fall and summer.
“There were just too many questions, and it was much too complicated to move forward with,” said Boner. “Given the significant amount of feedback we got at the 11th hour here in the interim process, I was personally frustrated that the proponents of the bill weren’t more organized.
“There’s a simpler way to go about doing this,” he added. “The idea is to protect gun manufacturers and gun dealers from lawsuits. You could be just more straightforward and exempt them from liability. It was an overly complicated and poorly organized effort to protect firearms manufacturers from liability.”