GILLETTE — Among the topics on the to-do list of the state Joint Judiciary Interim Committee is a draft bill to revise background check compliance on people wanting to buy firearms in Wyoming.
It was one of the first issues the 14-person committee discussed as they opened two days of meetings in Gillette this week.
It was unusual because the request for reporting all of the gun background check information to meet federal law came from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Wyoming is one of only three states — Montana and New Hampshire are the others — that don’t provide any mental health information for background checks, said Nephi Cole, director of government relations-state affairs with the foundation that represents gun manufacturers, dealers and businesses.
In fact, it ranks 50th among the 50 states in mental health records submitted and has no protocol for reporting mental health adjudications and commitments.
The mental health reports include a few conditions, he told the committee. It’s among the nine conditions someone can legally be denied a firearm for, along with having one’s U.S. citizenship renounced, being a felon, a fugitive from justice, a drug addict, judged to be mentally defective or committed to an institution, an alien in the country illegally, dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces or convicted of domestic violence crimes.
In addition to reporting any of the factors for a background check, states are required to not only protect an individual’s identification and access to that information publicly, they also must have an appeal system for those who were denied or want to restore their gun rights after mental treatment.
Cole emphasized that “we’re not talking about new laws.” Instead, the foundation wants the laws in place to be followed.
He spoke of mass shooting tragedies throughout the nation where people blame the background check system for those failures.
“We don’t think that it is a failure of the system, we think it’s a failure of reporting,” he said. “Our dealers, we run background checks of everything we move.”
There is a three-day delay in buying a firearm for each background check, Cole said. If the delay passes that three-day period, a dealer can proceed with the sale.
He said the foundation’s position is that gun laws now in effect are sufficient if reporting or data collection are done right.
The tragedies that put a spotlight on issues with background checks are “failures of an individual, not the system,” Cole said. “This is an indictment of people that should take care of the database.”
He showed examples of incidents where people blamed insufficient background checks, including a church shooting in Texas where the gunman — under the law — shouldn’t have been able to buy a firearm.
Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, asked Cole how many “red-flag gun laws” have been introduced in the 47 states who supply mental health information on gun sales. Those laws allow for temporary removal of guns if a judge determines a person could harm themselves or others.
“I don’t know for sure,” Cole replied. “Probably about 10. ... I can tell you it’s being pushed in every state.
“I will tell you there are real solutions and we think this is a real solution. We believe we’ve been addressing the law since 1984 (when it went into effect). I think this is a long-term struggle for us.”
Although the request comes from a national group representing 12,000 gun dealers and manufacturers, there were those who spoke to the committee against any such measure.
Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, was among them.
“I’m against doing this,” he said. “I think it can get way far reaching, like domestic violence. It can get way out of hand fast.”
He related a story about how a Gillette man was searched and held by police because someone had reported he was armed even when no gun was found on him. The police then held him as they tried to figure out what they could charge him with.
“Things can get way out of hand in a hurry,” he said. “You know where I stand on the Second Amendment. ... Mental disorders can get way out of hand, just like domestic violence. They are infringing on peoples’ right to own guns. I hope you would not take this up.”
Among those speaking in favor of the Judiciary Committee working on the state’s background check mental health protocol was Tara Muir, director of the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Seventy percent of people killed in Wyoming by an intimate partner are killed by firearms, she said. And if not guns, firearms often are used to exert power and control over victims, she said.
Chris Land of Gillette, who told the committee he works in an industrial setting moving heavy pieces of equipment, also spoke against the idea.
He gave an analogy from his business experience, saying that a pry bar can open a wedge that can be widened to lift heavy machinery.
“You guys are hopefully working in our best interest,” he said. “I think you have to be careful with what you’re doing if you open up a crack.
“We need to be careful about this and simplify it so people like me can understand why you’re doing this.”
Co-chairwoman Sen. Tara Nethercott, a Cheyenne attorney and Republican, said she sees a draft bill as a preventative measure and that she’s fearful of red-flag laws and that “more restructured gun laws are coming to Wyoming.”
“If you want to do something wrong, it’s not the gun that will do it, it’s the person,” Land responded. “It’s the meanness, the hate, it’s the lack of faith, it’s the lack of knowing what we’re supposed to do between right and wrong.
“We don’t need to get a crack in it. We don’t need a wedge. We already have laws.”
Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, suggested the committee have the Legislative Service Office draft an updated version of a bill that was introduced in 2014 but didn’t pass the Legislature and bring it back to the committee for its next interim meeting. His proposal passed the committee on a voice vote.
“For five years it seems like we got along, it seems like we’re doing this just to put another law on the books,” said Rep. Art Washut, a Casper Republican who voted against the proposal.
Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette and former Campbell County sheriff, was in favor of it.
“In the past, I know of a person who was deemed mentally incompetent and did go on to kill someone,” he said. “I do believe it would save lives. There’s not been that many cases, but if it saves one life, it’s worth it.”