A majority of the Wyoming House of Representatives wants to do away with gun-free zones, including zones around schools and colleges.
That means teachers, staff — anyone who obtains a concealed-carry permit — could bring a firearm into K-12 schools. College students who are 21 years old could carry a gun on campus, as could professors or staff members.
With the exception of courtrooms, anyone with a permit could carry a gun into a government office or a meeting, even into the State Capitol itself. Wyoming residents can already carry concealed weapons without a permit outside of gun-free zones, according to a 2011 law.
House Bill 114-Wyoming repeal gun free zones act, passed the House by a strong majority on a 42 to 17 vote last week. The bill now goes to the Senate, where experience from the 2013 session shows it may face resistance.
Proponents of the repeal say allowing guns everywhere would make public places safer. Attackers would be on notice that they may meet armed resistance in places normally considered as easy, defenseless targets.
“I really have a passion for this, that I think this is a safe thing to do,” bill sponsor and retired science teacher Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) said on the House floor.
Representatives were more skeptical of non-lethal means of increasing school safety. A separate bill to create a school security hotline where students could report threats barely passed on Wednesday on a 31 to 29 vote.
As Wyoming grapples with the emotionally charged issue of how to keep schools safe, it’s clear that there are no easy answers among legislators, and little consensus.
“The only way to defeat deadly force is to meet it with deadly force,” said Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Casper) during floor debate.
Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming history professor and former Marine, doubted his ability to accurately wield a gun in self-defense during an attack. He wrote the following in a letter to Albany County legislators:
“I’m not foolish enough to think I could … get the drop on a disgruntled armed student firing at me or others from among the 130 or so in my classroom, at least not without causing serious damage to lots of innocent people. Anyone thinking otherwise hasn’t taken enough training.”
Utah’s record with concealed carry
In arguing for the passaged of House Bill 114, Jaggi made the case that Utah has allowed concealed carry of weapons in all locations since 2000, without a having any problems with school shootings during that time.
“For 15 years, if you have a concealed carry permit, they’ve been allowing (it), (and) how much problems they’ve had? I told you, there is none,” Jaggi said.
It’s true that Utah hasn’t had a mass shooting attack on a school in recent years, but the full story is more nuanced.
Gun advocates said Utah’s school safety record sets it apart from more restrictive states like Colorado, which suffered the 1999 Columbine shooting, and more recent shootings at the New Life Church in 2007 and an Aurora theater in 2012.
“I think there is a consistent track record that gun-free zones kill,” said Anthony Bouchard of Wyoming Gun Owners Association. “On almost all gun-free zone shootings, the shooter is on a suicide mission, and that seems to be the most important part of their mission, and in Utah they can’t complete that suicide mission.”
The claim that Utah hasn’t had a problem with a school shooting since 2000 comes with a few caveats. During that time, the state’s schools have seen a murder-suicide, an attempted suicide, an accidental discharge, and an averted mass shooting, none of which were stopped by people with concealed weapons.
In a 2004 incident a man shot his estranged wife as she arrived to work at 6 a.m. at West High School in Salt Lake City. He then killed himself.
There were three near misses with gun violence at Utah schools in 2014. In April, a Provo High School student brought a gun to campus. Rather than attacking his fellow students in a murder suicide, he went to a remote location behind a building, shot himself in the mouth in a failed suicide attempt, and retreated to a bathroom to call 911.
In September an elementary school teacher carrying a concealed weapon went to the faculty bathroom and accidentally discharged her weapon into a toilet. The bullet entered and exited her leg, and she went to the hospital for treatment. No students were in the area at the time.
In another December incident, a Plain City student brought a gun to Fremont High School intending to shoot his ex-girlfriend and open fire at fellow students. Before he could do so, another student saw the weapon in his waistband and reported him to a school resource officer, who defused the situation.
Utah’s openness to concealed carry may have prevented some shootings not reported here, but it has not been a cure-all for dangerous incidents involving guns on school grounds.
Wyoming hasn’t seen a major school shooting since September 1993, when 29-year old Kevin Newman walked onto the outdoor field at Central Middle School in Sheridan and shot four students during gym class. He didn’t kill any of the students, but he then turned the gun on himself and died of the injury a few hours later. Teacher Vicky Hanft helped defuse the situation by waving kids off the field.
In 2012, Chris Krumm killed his father’s girlfriend in front of her Casper home, and minutes later killed his father Jim Krumm with a bow and arrow in a Casper College classroom. Campus security attempted to intervene, but Chris Krumm stabbed himself and died just after police and medics arrived. No firearms were used in the murders.
These incidents show that Wyoming is not immune from school violence. They add urgency to the cause of making schools more secure, even as complete solutions remain elusive.
House approves of repeal, but what will Senate do?
In past sessions of the Wyoming Legislature the House has favored repealing gun free zones, while the Senate was more skeptical of the idea.
This year House Bill 114 sailed through the House Judiciary committee on an 8–1 vote, with Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) casting the only opposing vote.
In introducing the bill, Jaggi cited Article 1 Section 24 of the Wyoming Constitution, which states, “The right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and of the state shall not be denied.”
The bill received minimal discussion on first reading and second reading.
In third reading several legislators introduced amendments allowing school districts to set gun policy in their schools, and prohibiting carrying guns in childcare facilities on college campuses. The House voted those amendments down, and the bill passed the House 42 to 17.
The bill now faces a potentially cool reception in the Senate.
In 2013, Senate Majority Floor Leader Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) let two pro-gun House bills die a procedural death when they weren’t brought to the floor before a deadline. (Read this article by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle for details.)
A third bill to allow guns on campuses and in schools never made it that far. House Bill 105-Citizens and students self-defense act died in the Senate Education Committee when no member made a motion on the bill. (For details on the 2013 committee hearing of HB 105, read this WyoFile report.)
This year Sen. Nicholas once again assigned HB 114 — the reincarnation of HB 105 from 2013 — to the Senate Education Committee. Three members of the 2015 committee are the same as the 2013 roster: Sens. Hank Coe (R-Cody), Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock), and Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). The two new members are Sens. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne), and Dan Dockstader (R-Afton).
React or prevent?
There are two main approaches to stopping school shootings. One is to be reactive, to counter a shooter while the attack is underway. Armed people have stopped a number of mass shootings, both at schools and at public places like malls and churches.
However, a study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation found bystanders who are unarmed are more likely to end an active shooter situation by confronting the attacker compared to people who are armed. In an FBI analysis of 160 active shooter events from 2000-2013, unarmed citizens stopped the attacks 21 times. Armed citizens or off-duty police stopped shooters by force in seven cases.
The events included shootings in businesses, public areas, government buildings, churches, health care facilities, residences, and schools.
Taken together, armed or unarmed citizens stopped a shooter just 27 percent of the time. The FBI concluded that preventing shootings, rather than stopping them once they are in progress, is the best approach to minimizing harm.
There are several approaches to avoiding active shooter situations altogether. Supporters of repealing gun-free zones say deterrence is part of their strategy: Would-be attackers could be dissuaded by knowing anyone they meet in a school could have a gun.
Another deterrent relies on observant bystanders or concerned acquaintances to defuse potential attacks before the situation becomes violent. That’s the premise behind the Safe2Tell security hotline in Colorado, where students can confidentially report problems like bullying, suicide risks, or potential school violence.
According to numbers compiled by Safe2Tell, the organization has helped prevent 360 planned school attacks in Colorado from 2004 through 2014. Thirty one of of these incidents involved an imminent threat where the attacker had made preparations resulting in arrest by police. The other incidents involved valid threats of an attack.
Safe2Tell supports its approach of prevention by phone calls using data in a U.S. Secret Service study that found in 81 percent of school attacks someone knew an attacker was planning something. In nearly all cases, the bystander with prior knowledge was a peer — usually a fellow student or friend — of the attacker. That’s just one piece of a wealth of data and evidenced-based practices about how to best prevent shootings.
“We have to broaden the conversation about how we prevent these things in the first place,” Safe2Tell founding director Susan Payne said. “That’s truly the biggest gap. It’s not in response.” She noted that Colorado allows individual school districts to designate school staff to be part of armed security teams.
The Joint Interim Education Committee wants to bring the Safe2Tell approach to Wyoming. House Bill 144-Education-school safety and security would create a school safety division within the Department of Criminal Investigation under the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. It would transfer an employee from the Department of Education for that purpose.
The school safety division would act like a 911 hotline for schools, with the ability to take calls and then dispatch the information to the relevant state and local authorities.
“The nice part of that is it has a preventive ingredient that is the key to it,” Education Committee Chairman Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan) said. Yet he said the hotline shouldn’t be seen as the sole answer to solve the school safety question.
“This represents one activity that is a good activity, but it is not the end, not the only thing,” he said.
Several committee amendments to HB 144 took out language authorizing a grant program to provide money to school districts wanting to hire more school resource officers. Other deleted language would have provided a path for teachers to become certified peace officers, an option the committee rejected as too expensive.
What remains is a stripped-down bill that would add three employees to the Attorney General’s office to get the school safety hotline in operation. The Legislature could then look at expanding the program in upcoming sessions.
The House narrowly approved the security hotline bill on Wednesday with a third reading vote of 31 to 29. The measure now goes to the Senate for review.
Opponents of the hotline argued that a better approach to school safety would focus on parents and local control, rather than relying on appointees in a state agency to coordinate the response to threats.
“I am not in favor of creating a bureaucracy that is reinventing the wheel,” said Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette).
Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) worried the bill might perpetuate a “surveillance society.”
“We all know about NSA, everybody listening to our phones and reading our emails,” Halverson said. “Now we are asking kids to participate in surveillance of each other.”
Those supporting the bill said it would be nearly cost-neutral, and fix the shortcomings of the existing WeTip hotline in the Wyoming Department of Education. Further, it would provide for outreach, where a state employee would travel the state to inform the public about the hotline and coordinate existing crisis management plans.
“We are looking for a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach, which could be argued is the approach of a previous bill we approved allowing concealed carry,” said former school principal Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment).
Safe2Tell director Susan Payne says Wyoming’s debate over concealed carry in schools is something many states are grappling with.
“It’s just the conversation that is occurring around this country in an attempt to create policy that allows for some sort of defensible action,” she said. “It’s a very difficult conversation.”