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New law gives more gun rights to felons

A new law will allow people convicted of violent felonies to own and use antique, muzzle-loading firearms, like this one. A new law will allow people convicted of violent felonies to own and use antique, muzzle-loading firearms, like this one. Courtesy photo

Allows people convicted of violent crimes to possess antique firearms

People convicted of violent felony crimes will be allowed to own and use certain types of antique guns under a bill recently passed by Wyoming lawmakers.

Felons remain barred from possessing modern firearms under federal law; what’s different is that state law will now allow people convicted of violent crimes to use black powder, muzzle-loading guns. The change — approved by nearly unanimous votes in the state House and Senate — puts Wyoming law in line with federal code, which makes the same exceptions for the old firearms.

“It’s just consistency with federal law, because there’s a lot of confusion about whether felons can possess these antique guns (in Wyoming),” Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, explained during debate last month. “So this provides that consistency.”

Up until the change, Wyoming’s statutes were more strict than federal law. The state statutes said people convicted of violent felonies — crimes that include murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, armed burglary, arson and aggravated assault — could not use or possess “any firearm.”

The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the prohibition included muzzle-loading, black powder antiques.

“The phrase ‘any firearm’ signifies the Legislature’s intent to keep firearms away from felons who have demonstrated their propensity for violence,” the court wrote at the time. “If the Legislature intended to create an exception for a muzzle-loading black powder rifle, it could have done so. It did not.”

This year, however, lawmakers decided to carve out that exception and match the federal law.

Rep. Bunky Loucks, R-Casper, said he sponsored House Bill 231 after being contacted by a constituent who’d gotten conflicting information on whether he could hunt with a muzzle-loader.

While the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the local sheriff’s office had told the man it was OK to use the old guns, “once we got into it, we realized that it wasn’t OK,” Loucks said during debate.

The new law only allows felons to use muzzle-loading rifles, shotguns or pistols that are designed to use black powder and are unable to use fixed ammunition.

“This is old-school equipment,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance. “World War II equipment — (even) World War I equipment — does not qualify. This specifically exempts out anything like that.”

Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric said in a Tuesday interview that “it was a narrow class of people who couldn’t possess black powder” firearms, because most felons aren’t “violent felons,” as defined by state law.

“What’s the impact of this? I don’t think it’s going to be significant,” Skoric said, adding that he didn’t take a position on the bill.

HB 231 overwhelmingly passed the House (58-2) and Senate (25-1), with all of Park County’s lawmakers supporting it. Gov. Matt Mead signed the measure into law on March 9.

Meanwhile, Mead announced Wednesday evening that he had vetoed a separate bill that would have allowed citizens to take concealed weapons into government meetings.

In his veto message, the governor said House Bill 137 was “murky” — containing unclear language about whether concealed weapons would be allowed in the Legislature while removing the ability of local elected officials to decide whether to allow weapons at their meetings. Mead noted that “open carry” remains legal.

Some conservative activists feared Mead would veto House Bill 137 and asserted there would be an inconsistency in nixing that legislation while signing HB 231 to expand felons’ gun rights.

“Gov. Mead Trusts Felons With Guns — Does He Trust You?” read the headline on a recent email from Wyoming Gun Owners.

“We’re not saying that it’s wrong for certain groups of convicted criminals to have their rights restored in every situation. But for Gov. Mead to sign this bill into law while he refuses to tell gun owners where he stands on HB 137 is very concerning,” Wyoming Gun Owners President David Ball wrote. “It’s almost like he trusts a convicted felon more than he trusts you and me when it comes to the safe use of a firearm.”

The Big Horn Basin TEA Party sent the message to its followers, similarly urging people to contact Mead’s office in support of HB 137.

The tea party group also sarcastically wrote that “of course we know (antique firearms) are less dangerous than modern firearms; just ask the three people shot in Cody this past summer (2016) with a cap and ball gun.”

Steven Winsor, a Cody resident and convicted felon, is currently facing five misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment in connection with that incident. The Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office alleges that, while performing downtown with the Cody Gunfighters last July, Winsor mistakenly loaded one of his black powder revolvers with actual ammunition and fired five balls into the crowd. Three people suffered relatively minor injuries, Cody police have said.

The new law has no impact on Winsor’s situation. Court records show he has past felony convictions, but none are violent felonies — meaning he’s always been able to possess muzzle-loading black powder firearms.

While the case stemming from last year’s shooting is pending, however, Winsor is prohibited from possessing any kind of guns.

“I think it goes without saying when you have at least four felony convictions, that he possess no firearms, but specifically we would ask that he possess no black powder firearms, because there is that funky exception that a convicted felon can possess a black powder firearm,” Deputy Park County Prosecuting Attorney Leda Pojman said during a court hearing last month.

Wyoming’s new law extends that exception to all felons on July 1.

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