JACKSON — Wyoming lawmakers will consider a new law allowing people with concealed carry permits to take guns into areas where firearms were previously prohibited, such as schools and legislative meetings.
House Bill 117 and Senate File 67 would repeal gun-free zones in government meetings, public schools, public university buildings and professional athletic events. Only those with state-issued concealed carry permits would be legally allowed to carry guns in those areas.
The draft law has generated some confusion. Wyoming does not require concealed carry permits for residents to carry firearms in other areas not designated as gun-free zones. However, under the proposed law, concealed carry permits would be required to take firearms into the previously gun-free zones.
When Bob Culver of the Jackson Hole Tea Party heard about the bill, he questioned whether those operating under constitutional carry would be affected.
“It raises some sticky issues,” Culver said. “It’s not a simple thing. The laws are a little convoluted.”
Under the proposed bill, school districts would still be able to regulate their employees’ possession of firearms on school property. Granting employees concealed carry rights would require a vote by a school district’s board of trustees. Additionally, students would not be allowed to carry guns into schools because anyone younger than 21 is not eligible for a concealed carry permit.
Still, Teton County School District Superintendent Gillian Chapman anticipates risky ramifications. If schools are no longer designated as strict gun-free zones, the monitoring of permissible gun-carrying becomes “one more thing to manage and supervise” and creates new dangers, she said.
“Staff and visitors would bring weapons into a school,” Chapman told the News&Guide in an email. “Accidents occur, weapons could be left behind in restrooms, or forgotten about in a classroom.”
Chapman also would not recommend allowing school employees to carry firearms at work.
“There is no reason to have a weapon inside a school,” she wrote, and “guns should be left at home” as a matter of safety.
In contrast, Sen. John Kolb, R-Sweetwater, a co-sponsor of the Senate file, said he supports the bill because he believes the presence of law-abiding citizens with guns would increase safety in schools. Currently, schools are de facto “victim zones” rather than gun-free zones, Kolb said, because those intending to harm a school would ignore the gun-free zones while those who follow the law are left defenseless.
“We’ve got great law officers, but they’re just not everywhere,” Kolb said. “They can’t be. Inherently it seems very wrong to take away the people’s rights to protect themselves and their children.”
Kolb does not expect the statute to bring a flood of guns into schools. School resource officers and law enforcement would still be present, he said, and students would still be forbidden to bring guns. Outside visitors cannot “just walk into a school,” he said, so weapon-carrying visitors should not present an issue.
“This just allows a bit more freedom to protect yourself and your loved ones,” Kolb said. “If things go awry, and unforeseen consequences happened, I’d be the first one to come in there and try to amend the statute.”
The efficacy of gun-free zones is not clear.
Superintendent Chapman noted that Teton County “has not had any sort of gun violence in our schools” and pointed to gun-free zones as an assurance of the trend continuing. Sen. Kolb, however, sees gun-free zones as a failure, citing school shootings in gun-free zones across the nation as well as a Reuters report stating that Wyoming has had two school shootings since the 1970s.
Researchers also don’t have a clear-cut answer. A 2016 academic paper in the European Economic Review found inconclusive results about the effect of concealed gun possession on crime. For decades the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was blocked from researching gun violence — the CDC only just began funding studies regarding firearm injury prevention in September 2020 — and thus little evidence is available about the effectiveness of gun-free zones.
Local legislators are worried about the bill. Teton County Commissioner Mark Barron, a Republican, said he is “all for gun rights within reason” but does not “support carrying a weapon into civic meetings.”
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, said such a bill might produce an “intimidating effect” on vulnerable members of the public who want to give testimony in front of elected representatives. Additionally he said the bill seemed to divert attention from discussing the education budget.
“I think [gun legislation] is being used to push the discussion away from the important issue of how we fund education and instead making the focus on how we put guns in schools,” Yin said.
Although the bill retains a private property owner’s right to restrict firearms, some high-profile properties fall in a gray zone.
St. John’s Health, for instance, is located on its own private property, but the hospital itself is a hospital district governed by an elected board. So Richelle Heldwein, the hospital’s chief risk and compliance officer, said she was unsure how the bill would affect St. John’s.
If the hospital were prohibited from enforcing its gun-free zone, the safety of the hospital environment could be jeopardized, she said. Safety is particularly concerning for St. John’s because the hospital does not have its own armed security guards and instead relies on police.
“Some statistics show that hospitals and health care are some of the highest areas of workplace violence,” Heldwein said. “Adding guns to that mix of workplace violence is just scary to us as an organization.”