LEGISLATIVE WATCH WYOMING: Lawmakers May Restore Gun Rights of Nonviolent Felons

Follows 2017 bill that restored voting rights

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Feb 18, 2023

By CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth


Wyomingites who’ve committed nonviolent felony crimes in their past may soon be eligible to have their firearm and other civil rights restored.

Senator Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, listens during the morning session February 8, 2023 in the Senate Chamber. Photo by Michael Smith

In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature allowed one-time felons who have completed their sentences to vote. A bill now advancing through the body would eventually allow those individuals to regain their other rights, too.

The Senate endorsed Senate File 120 on 24-7 vote, and it unanimously cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, 9-0.

Sponsor Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said the permanent loss of rights associated with a felony conviction has long bothered him. After encountering a half-dozen people on the campaign trail last year who couldn’t vote, “I just said, ‘OK, that’s enough. I’ve got to take this on,’” he said.

Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) commended Barlow for doing so. In his role as a pastor, Haroldson said he regularly works with people who made a dumb decision in their younger years and “truly have changed, truly have cleaned up their life,” but remain haunted by a felony conviction, unable to vote or hunt.

Since the Legislature began restoring nonviolent felons’ voting rights, 3,400 people have been re-enfranchised, according to the Department of Corrections. SF 120 would allow those individuals to also regain their right to serve on a jury, hold public office and bear arms. While voting rights are restored at the end of a qualifying person’s sentence, the additional rights would come after a period of time equal to the length of their sentence or five years, whichever is less.

Barlow predicted that more felons with old convictions will take advantage of the opportunity.

“There are folks who [will say], ‘I’m not that worried about voting, but now that I can have my Second Amendment rights back, OK, now I’m interested in this,’” he said.

Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Dan Shannon said that restoring felons’ civil rights reduces recidivism. He said a 2017 bill restoring voting rights led to fewer people winding up back in state institutions, which include the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution pictured above. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Department of Corrections)

The Wyoming Department of Corrections expects it will need to hire another employee to process the restoration of rights, at a cost of $60,000. However, “if 3,400 people in the state of Wyoming have their civil rights restored, that’s a pretty cheap price for … liberty,” Barlow offered.

Further, “The data is very clear that those who have had their voting rights restored, that are participants in our communities, recidivism rates have receded and dropped,” said Department of Corrections Director Dan Shannon. He said the recent restorations have led to fewer people in Wyoming prisons.

Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) called SF 120 “a great first step, and I think it will demonstrate to us the benefits of people being treated as if they are citizens of this country and not less than.”  

As currently written, those convicted for misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence would not be able to get their gun rights restored. Barlow initially attempted to include those offenses in the bill, but he said specifying how Wyoming’s law would interplay with federal law — which bars those convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms — proved to be a “quagmire.”

Tara Muir, the public policy director of the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, raised concerns about the potential of domestic abusers regaining their gun rights. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence/BHP Imaging)

Even in its amended form, Tara Muir of the Wyoming Coalition and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault raised concern that the bill would give the governor the ability to restore the gun rights of domestic abusers. Muir said women are five times as likely to be murdered when an abusive partner has access to a firearm and noted eight Wyoming women were killed by current or former partners in 2020, with six involving guns. On a per capita basis, that gave Wyoming the country’s third-highest rate of men killing women.

“While it would be great to walk away and let you all work on this bill, [there are] the voices of survivors from across our state, their stories of fear for their lives and their children’s lives when guns are in the homes,” Muir said. “They get threatened with them, they get beaten by them and too often we hear the survivors say the abusive person tells them that simply no one’s around to stop them.”

She asked for the bill to say that those with domestic violence convictions and protection orders cannot get their gun rights back.

Rep. Ken Chestek (D-Laramie) said he may bring an amendment to address the concern, and Barlow said he’ll continue to work with Muir on SF 120.

“I want it to be right,” Barlow said. “I want to protect folks who may be subject to threat and violence, but I also want to not blanket it as we are now, where nobody gets their rights back — truly nobody.” 

With the federal government offering no way for convicts to have their gun rights restored, the bill would put that power in Wyoming’s hands — though there could be federal complications. For instance, if a felon whose rights have been restored in Wyoming attempts to buy a gun and undergoes an ATF background check, “I don’t know how they would regard that,” Barlow said. 

Under the bill, those convicted of violent felonies — such as murder, rape, repeated domestic battery, robbery and, under the bill, causing or attempting to cause bodily injury to a peace officer — would remain ineligible to have their rights restored.

SF 120 now heads to the House floor.

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