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Texas school killing stirs gun policy talk in Wyoming

Guns in school and the idea of arming teachers is once again being discussed after another mass shooting.

By Jasmine Hall, Jonathan Make and Hannah Black
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — Wyoming’s federal and state Republican lawmakers said Wednesday following Tuesday’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school that gun control laws aren’t the solution to preventing violence.

A total of 19 children and two adults were killed by a lone gunman at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, an incident that has reignited a national debate on gun control policies.

U.S. Senate Democrats spent Tuesday working to place enhanced background check legislation on the legislative calendar, though there was no official vote scheduled.

All three of Wyoming’s members of Congress previously voted no on the Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the Enhanced Background Checks Act. These bills were introduced in March, and they were both passed by the House.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., offered her condolences Tuesday over Twitter. She had no other comment.

“I’m heartbroken by the horrific tragedy in Uvalde,” she tweeted. “As a mother, I cannot imagine the pain and devastation being felt by the victims’ families as a result of this senseless violence. May God be with them and comfort them during this time of unthinkable sadness.”

In a statement Wednesday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said only a truly evil person would go into a school to murder innocent children, and the U.S. is united in support of the victims’ families.

“We all agree that we must find ways to curb violent crime and keep guns out of the hands of the criminals,” he said. “Legislation that takes away our constitutional rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment will not solve it.”

Wyoming Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, said he expected as an immediate response an attempt to pass restrictive federal laws, though he said that an individual will get a weapon, no matter what.

He said the Wyoming Legislature currently has no plans to readdress gun laws, because residents see gun ownership as a part of their own security.

“Wyoming stands for those Second Amendment rights and doesn’t want to see those taken away,” he told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “I don’t want to see them diluted in any way.”

On the other side of the political aisle, Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, wrote in an email to the WTE that he thinks “we need to realize that this is not normal, nor is it reflective of the rest of the developed world (even ones that have access to guns!).” ‘The question “is can we work together as a state and a nation to work on the problem, instead of continually having it happen every few days across this country, then ignoring it,” he added, referring to mass shootings.

National and local gun rights groups and gun retailers did not comment for this news report.

Dockstader said he prefers to look to prevention tactics such as school safety initiatives and investments in mental health services. He said the world is now a place where security measures and enhanced door locks are necessary. His fellow lawmakers agreed with this sentiment.

“The focus should be on better protecting our children, securing our schools and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Barrasso said. “We must also find a better way to identify troubled individuals early so we can prevent tragedies like this one from happening.”

Lack of access to mental health services is a key factor in addressing the gun violence being seen across the nation, according to Dockstader. He said he also sees individual family issues as a cause of such crimes. He said you have to look at how children are being raised, and if there’s respect and dignity at home. He sees incivility as affecting our collective mental well-being.

Some legislators are wary of additional public spending on mental health services in order to prevent mass shootings.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said he is concerned by a correlation he read about between individuals on a type of antidepressants known as SSRIs and gun violence.

He said individuals who are taking such selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for a period of time often want to kill or harm others. He wants self-defense solutions to prepare people to face an attacker.

Bouchard explained that he wants to follow Utah’s lead in passing legislation to allow anyone who has a concealed carry permit to be armed inside of schools.

“People need to be defending their own families,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “These evil people are blood-thirsty killers, and you only stop them with equal force.”

Advocates for gun safety say legislation for arming people in schools would not necessarily prevent violence. They have opposed bills in the Wyoming Legislature such as those that would allow for the arming of teachers, guns on campuses and concealed carry of firearms in kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

Beth Howard, who is the Wyoming legislative lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said this group has had success in preventing the passage of these bills.

“If things are defeated, it is also because there are a significant number of Republicans who don’t think it’s good legislation, either,” she said.

The state’s lawmakers are overwhelmingly GOP members.

Her organization has a program that tries to encourage people to store their guns in a locked place and unloaded, with ammunition stored separately.

“I think most responsible gun owners agree that guns need to be stored safely,” said Howard, a longtime Cheyenne resident and former school board member.

She hopes for more funding for mental health services and for suicide prevention and awareness efforts. Having Wyoming submit to a federal database information on people who have been involuntarily committed could help prevent some violence, the advocate said.

Yin appeared to be frustrated Wednesday as he recalled the failure in 2020 to pass House Bill 59, which would have allowed for sharing such information.

“We need more legislators who are willing to put in thoughtful work on solutions instead of just oppose through fear any attempt at working to prevent future tragedies from occurring,” he wrote in his email.

Although there is opposition to allowing guns on school property, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said he anticipates this to be the legislative response in the upcoming general session, if there is any reaction.

He said the same discussions were had after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, as to whether teachers and principals needed to be armed, and if there should be firearms on site.

In rural areas where law enforcement is often far away, he said there are residents who want educators to have weapons, with protocols if there is a nearby shooter.

Although Wyoming has had no major mass shooting incidents in recent memory that have attracted national attention, it has been experiencing a spate of gun deaths.

The state has had the highest rate of gun suicides in the U.S., according to the Everytown for Gun Safety organization.

It says there has only been one mass shooting incident in the past 13 years in the state. Four people were killed and one was injured more than a decade ago in a family incident in Wheatland.

Stacey Hervey, an associate professor of criminology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said the low number of mass shootings does not mean one occurring in this state is entirely out of the realm of possibility.

“Statistically, with a low population, you are much less likely to have one (in Wyoming). But the hard part with mass shootings is it can happen anytime,” Hervey said by phone. “It can happen anywhere.”

“We’re certainly not immune in Wyoming,” Zwonitzer agreed.

Zwonitzer said he hopes that sheriffs and police chiefs will continue to encourage additional situation training, develop standard emergency procedures and make sure they are prepared for any such crimes through working with their associations. He believes they have taken those steps since the Sandy Hook shooting, and says they just need to remain vigilant.

Cheyenne Police Chief Mark Francisco told the WTE that CPD has created within its ranks an active shooter protocol for Laramie County School District No. 1, also involving LCSD No. 1 staff.

He said building upgrades have increased security features. The Laramie County Sheriff’s Office is also taking extra precautions.

“We have had a stronger-than-usual (law enforcement) presence at our schools,” wrote LCSO Capt. Kevin James in an email.

He noted that the sheriff’s office trains its deputies “for active shooter incidents multiple times per year.”

Should such a situation occur, he said that “all on-duty deputies would respond immediately to stop the threat,” and this could include other law enforcement, fire and medical first-responder agencies.

James reminded community members to report any “warning signs” to law enforcement – before any crime takes place.

“Students, family members of students and teachers may be in the best position to see these,” he wrote.

A key factor in trying to prevent such incidents is awareness. Francisco said many shooters are posting their intentions on social media, which was the case in both the recent shootings in Uvalde and in Buffalo, New York.

In 2016, the state launched the Safe2Tell tip line in response to school tragedies nationwide. It has been used by students, educators, parents and others to relay information confidentially regarding school and student safety concerns.

The question is how can such initiatives be further expanded, without violating people’s First Amendment rights to free speech, said Metropolitan State University’s Hervey.

She previously was a police officer and victim advocate in Boulder, Colorado, and she now also teaches high school.

Francisco said he thinks it’s worth considering “red flag” laws that are designed to keep guns away from those who with mental illnesses or otherwise a danger to others. But that’s not the only solution.

“My personal view is that the country needs to take a hard look at school security. Whether it’s the places that are comfortable having those teachers that agree to go to training to be armed, or whether they hire armed security,” Francisco said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that these mass shooters generally target your gun-free zones.”

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