By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — An attorney for Lyle Williams, who was cited in 2018 for carrying a gun on the University of Wyoming’s campus, has filed the opening brief in an appeal of a December ruling by Albany County district court judge Tori Kricken, who upended the conventional reading of 2010’s Wyoming Firearms Freedom Act by determining the law unwittingly restricted gun rights in the state.
Williams appealed the ruling to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Jason Tangeman, the Laramie attorney representing Williams, wrote in his opening brief that Kricken’s interpretation of the 2010 gun law’s intent “defies political reality” and is based on “rank speculation and (are) not supported by citation to any cogent authority.”
Williams is a Uinta County man who openly carried a gun on the Laramie campus during the Wyoming State Republican Party Convention last April in an effort to challenge UW’s firearms ban.
Wyoming Statute 6-8-401 prohibits gun regulations by any “city, town, county, political subdivision or any other entity.”
That pre-emption of gun regulations by the state under Section 401 has existed since 1995. In 2010, gun advocates in the Legislature attempted to update the statute to add even more restrictions on gun regulations. However, they did so using the Wyoming Firearms Freedom Act, a law largely intended to skirt federal regulation of Wyoming-made guns.
The update to Section 401 was a tangentially-related “rider” to the law. However, the law also begins with an applicability clause: “This act shall apply to firearms, firearm accessories and ammunition that are manufactured in Wyoming.”
That applicability clause applies to the Section 401 update as well, Kricken said in December, meaning that, since 2010, the state’s pre-emption of gun regulations applies only to guns manufactured within the state.
The gun Williams was carrying when he was cited was a Kahr 9mm semi-automatic pistol, manufactured in Massachusetts.
In his opening brief filed Thursday, Tangeman said Kricken’s decision on the Legislature’s intent “defies political reality.”
“To begin, the district court’s decision requires (the Wyoming Supreme Court) to agree and conclude that beginning in 2010 the Wyoming Legislature intended to limit its ability to regulate firearms in our most conservative state,” Tangeman wrote. “Since (at least 1995), and unlike other states, the Wyoming Legislature has not enacted, for example, handgun regulations, ammunition restrictions and/or 'bump-stock' prohibitions. In fact, the Legislature has gone the opposite direction and given local school districts the authority to arm teachers in the classroom in response to a spate of well-publicized school shootings. Moreover, the overarching legislative purpose of the WFFA is to grant citizens greater freedom to own and possess firearms, not less. The point is, from a philosophical standpoint, it somewhat defies political reality to accept the district court’s speculation that the Legislature intended to reduce the scope of its firearms preemption by the enactment of the WFFA.”
Tangeman argues the applicability clause’s relationship with Section 401 is clearly “a drafting error,” and notes numerous other language in the law that indicates the Section 401 update was not intended to be “interdependent” with the rest of the Wyoming Firearms Freedom Act. He argues Kricken’s interpretation creates “absurd results.”
“The absurdity stems from the fact that the 10 largest firearms manufacturers in the world, which do not manufacture firearms in Wyoming, are now excluded from preemption,” Tangeman said. “This is of course nearly all firearms owned, possessed, used and/or carried in the state of Wyoming. The fact almost all firearms are foreign manufactured means the District Court’s ruling essentially renders legislative preemption of the regulation of firearms in Wyoming a nullity contrary to the rules of statutory construction.”
In legal defenses UW’s made of its gun regulations, the school’s attorneys argued that UW has a legitimate interest in protecting a “sensitive place.”
“However, application of the district court’s ruling means that university students, or guests like the appellant Mr. Williams, may openly carry their Wyoming-manufactured Weatherby firearms on campus while other students or guests are prohibited from carrying a firearm of similar caliber manufactured by say Smith & Wesson,” Tangeman argues. “A Wyoming-manufactured firearm is no more dangerous than a foreign-manufactured firearm. As such, the district court’s inclusion of Section 401 in the WFFA not only undermines the original preemptive intent of Section 401 but also fails to meet the goal of campus safety supposed contemplated by UW (gun regulations).”
Tangeman’s brief also makes two other arguments against UW’s legal authority to regulate firearms possession: First, he argues that the state’s pre-emption of gun regulations gives regulatory power to the Legislature, not any state agency. Second, he argues that Supreme Court protections of “sensitive places” does not apply to the UW Convention Center.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed certain exceptions to the Constitution’s Second Amendment in the 2008 landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller.
In that case, the country’s high court struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban while upholding “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”
The UW Conference Center, Tangeman argues, is “not formally on the campus” and is “not even a building that has a nexus to an educational purpose.”
UW’s ban on carrying a gun applies to “all real property … owned or controlled by the trustees of the university.”
Surely, Tangeman says, the U.S. Supreme Court’s carveout for “sensitive place” is not meant to accommodate such a regulation, which also inherently applies to all UW undeveloped property throughout the state. Within Albany County, UW owns land more than 50 miles away from Laramie.
If the Wyoming Legislature doesn’t want its ban on regulations to apply only to Wyoming-manufactured guns, it’s the Legislature’s job to fix its mistake, Kricken said.
“If, indeed such is the case, then it is within the province of the Wyoming Legislature, not this court, to correct said typo,” she wrote. “The Legislature is more than competent to amend the current statutory scheme to remove (Section 401) from the act, should it deem necessary.”
Two bills introduced in the 2019 legislative session would have made such a change and rendered much of Kricken’s decision moot.
Despite both bills having more than 30 co-sponsors, neither bill passed their chamber of origin.
Both bills were designed to eliminate most gun-free zones across the state and would have clarified Wyoming’s statute to say that only the Legislature, not state agencies or UW, have the ability to regulate firearms.