SUNDANCE — All 23 Wyoming sheriffs have voiced alarm about a bill before the Legislature — the Second Amendment Preservation Act, or House Bill 124/Senate File 81 — that they say, while intended to be pro-Second Amendment, has anti-law enforcement implications.
“It’s not intended to be anti-law enforcement, but it is,” Crook County Sheriff Jeff Hodge said. “The intention was good, but they need to talk to peace officers and prosecutors.”
Were the bill to pass, Hodge said, it could turn an ordinary arrest into a career-ending decision for a peace officer.
While it does little to protect the average citizen and removes a protection police rely on, he said, it provides protection for one group: criminals.
The intent of the Second Amendment Preservation Act is to prevent firearms from being confiscated by federal entities under federal laws that may be passed in the future. It does this by holding state law enforcement officers accountable.
While the sheriffs have no issue with the concept, they feel the wording is flawed.
For starters, the bill states that no person, including a peace officer, shall have the authority to enforce any federal law or ordinance that infringes on a person’s right to keep and bear arms. Anyone who does so knowingly or who knowingly deprives a Wyoming resident of their Second Amendment rights shall be held liable.
Another section states that anyone who commits the above-mentioned act will be “permanently ineligible to serve as a law enforcement officer” and immediately terminated from their position. The bill removes the “qualified immunity” that protects officers from civil suits unless it can be shown they violated statutory or constitutional rights a reasonable person would have known.
Hodge said Wyoming’s sheriffs were not consulted about this wording. Police could quickly have explained the problematic implications, he said.
In a real-life situation where a crime has been committed, Hodge said, a peace officer may seize a firearm as evidence or to prevent further harm. But if the case becomes federal and the gun owner is not convicted and thus remains a law-abiding citizen, the officer could lose his job.
“Everything you’re doing, you’re always going to have that in the back of your mind,” Hodge said. “This could actually inhibit law enforcement from doing our job.”
While the bill is intended to address situations in which federal laws are applied, Hodge said, it’s not unusual for federal law enforcement to become involved in local cases, such as child pornography, aggravated assault or child trafficking.
“They might originate locally,” he said, “but they can expand outside of our jurisdiction so we automatically look for federal officers to partner with.”
Another example of how problematic the proposed legislation could become involves self-defense, Hodge said. If one person shoots another in self-defense, an officer will seize the firearm used as evidence until the investigation is complete.
“If the investigation is completed and it turns out to be self-defense, you have just taken a firearm from a law-abiding citizen,” he said. “You are law abiding until you have been convicted.
“If it ends up going to court and he’s found not guilty, he’s still a law-abiding citizen so [the officer who seized the firearm] has violated the statute.”
It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which an officer feels reluctant to seize a firearm, even in a potential murder case, as doing so could end their career.
“Even though we have probable cause to arrest, it can still get to court and be dismissed,” Hodge said.
A letter signed by all 23 sheriffs to the Wyoming Legislature describes this as an “impossible dilemma.”
“For example,” the letter states, “we could normally seize a firearm as part of a local case and turn the firearm over to federal entities for prosecution. These cases run the gamut of aggravated robbery, child pornography and various dangerous drug investigations.”
The letter also expresses concern over the stripping of qualified immunity, which protects police from unintentional violations of rights.
The effects of the legislation would be immense, Hodge said, from huge increases in insurance costs to impacts on recruitment.
Hodge is concerned the bill, which is co-sponsored by 13 representatives and six senators, will pass as it stands.
“The thought now that you’re hearing from legislators is that, if they don’t sign on to these bills, they’re automatically anti-Second Amendment, which is just absurd. ... Surely we can do good legislation and protect Second Amendment rights and be pro-law enforcement [too].”
Hodge does not believe effective legislation caters to special interest groups: “Good legislation comes from everybody discussing, debating and at times compromising. Being bullied into signing legislation over fear of special interest groups that likely do not have the best interests of Wyoming citizens in mind and are often not even from Wyoming should be very concerning to Wyoming citizens.”
Hodge also worries about HB-117, which would prohibit private property owners from restricting firearms on their property. Again, the intention seems to be to protect Second Amendment rights, but he said it hasn’t been thought through.
“If you own a restaurant, you can’t prohibit someone from walking in there with an AK-47 and sitting down to eat,” he says. “You can’t restrict someone from coming on your private property with a firearm on.”
That is an attack on private property rights, Hodge said.
“As I’ve always said, your rights don’t trump another person’s rights,” he said.
Another bill on the horizon looks to repeal gun-free zones on school property. While Hodge said he’s not a huge supporter of “gun-free zone” signs at schools, he doesn’t think Crook County students would enjoy a junior high basketball game knowing someone on the sidelines had a rifle slung over their shoulder.
“Because they can, somebody will,” said Hodge.