CHEYENNE — Gun violence became a reality for Beth Howard nearly two decades ago, before the daily reports of shootings across the nation filled the news cycle.
She was serving as a Laramie County School District 1 trustee when the Columbine High School massacre occurred. Her two sons attended high school in Cheyenne at the time.
Howard told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle she was keenly aware at that moment it could happen in her own town.
She has lived in Cheyenne since she graduated from Drake University in 1977. She moved out West to join her high school sweetheart and husband who had earned his bachelor’s from the University of Wyoming. They laid down roots and raised three sons, two of which joined branches of the U.S. armed forces and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Howard grasped the danger students were in during their public school education, but the breaking point came in 2012. She said she knew she had to step up and get involved following the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
“When all the first graders were killed, that was just gut-wrenchingly painful to me,” she said.
She began donating to gun violence prevention and awareness organizations before being recruited to volunteer in 2017 at the Wyoming Legislature. Howard is now the legislative lead for Moms Demand Action, which is an affiliate of the Everytown For Gun Safety organization.
The advocate considers herself a Wyomingite to the core — one who hopes the state can work together to save lives.
Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, and leads in the number of suicide deaths by gun. Data pulled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 86% of all gun deaths are suicides in Wyoming, while only 10% are homicides.
This equates to a gun suicide death every 72 hours, and those numbers continue to increase.
“In Wyoming, the rate of gun suicide increased 31% from 2012 to 2021, compared to a 19% national change,” according to research and analysis by Everytown.
Howard said preventing suicide includes ensuring there are mental health resources available for residents, and noted the Wyoming Legislature took steps in that direction by formally establishing the 988 suicide prevention hotline during the most recent session. But she sees other areas where they could take action.
She said lawmakers must consider policies such as implementing universal background checks for all firearm purchases; requiring firearms to be stored properly locked and unloaded; and allowing the issuance of extreme risk protection orders for law enforcement and family members to petition a court to temporarily prevent someone in crisis from accessing guns.
Federal law requires federally licensed arms dealers, not private sellers, to initiate a background check on the purchaser prior to sale of a firearm. The federal government allows states to serve as a “point of contact” and conduct their own background checks using a variety of databases, including the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The state is not a point of contact for NICS, and there is no law requiring firearm dealers to initiate background checks prior to transferring ownership of a firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center for Preventing Gun Violence. Howard said even if a resident got a background check, any involuntary commitment or other medical history won’t show up in the system.
“We hear people say that ‘this is a mental health problem, it’s not a gun problem,’” she said. “But if you’re not providing any guardrails to keep people with mental health problems from accessing guns, then how are you addressing that issue?”
Howard is not alone in believing change is necessary.
Wyoming received an ‘F’ grade at the end of March on the Giffords Law Center’s annual Gun Law Scorecard, and continues to rank among states with the fewest gun control measures.
The law center ranked Wyoming second-to-last for gun law strength, which pertains to the number of gun safety laws a state has.
Wyoming had the fifth-highest rate of gun deaths in the country last year at 26.1 per 100,000 residents. This was 78% higher than the national average, according to the report.
The Cowboy State was also ranked low by the largest gun violence prevention organization in America. Everytown cited Wyoming as 44th for gun law strength in 2023, while being the state with the second-highest household firearm ownership.
Gun violence statistics weren’t the only reason for the low rankings. Both Giffords and Everytown conducted a policy analysis, and reported what they saw as gun violence prevention gaps in Wyoming statutes.
Wyoming doesn’t prohibit individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or subject to domestic violence protective orders from buying guns or ammunition. Courts aren’t required to notify residents when they become prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition under state or federal law, or require them to surrender the items. There is also no explicit authorization for law enforcement to remove firearms or ammunition from the scene of a domestic violence incident.
Wyoming has passed no legislation requiring gun owners or buyers to obtain a license, register their firearms, or report the loss or theft of a firearm. The state also allows the open carrying of firearms without a permit or license for both residents and nonresidents, and, in many cases, concealed carry permits are not required if the individual would otherwise qualify for the permit.
On a larger scale, there are also no laws regulating gun trafficking; limiting the number of firearms that may be purchased; providing direction on microstamping or ballistic information; or restrictions on untraceable firearms known as “ghost guns.”
Many of these areas were addressed by states that received ‘A’ rankings, most of which also lack specific Second Amendment protections.
“Stand-your-ground laws upend centuries of legal tradition, allowing a person to use deadly force in self-defense in public, even if that force can be safely avoided by retreating or when nonlethal force would suffice,” according to law center experts. “Wyoming has enacted a stand-your-ground law, which removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense when a person is in any place he or she is lawfully present and not engaged in illegal activity, providing that the person is not the initial aggressor.”
In the end, their solutions are similar to those put forward by Howard.
Giffords provided five main recommendations for how Wyoming could improve its grade, including: enacting universal background checks through gun owner licensing; strengthening domestic violence gun laws; passing an extreme risk protection order law; banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines; and requiring a purchasing waiting period.
Executive Director Peter Ambler said in the rankings announcement that these recommendations came after some of the worst mass shootings in American history in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, and that a record-breaking 48,830 people were killed by guns in 2021.
“This is a public safety epidemic, and Wyoming must do more to address it. We’ve proven that lawmakers can save lives, reduce violence and make their states safer by following a simple blueprint: pass gun violence prevention laws,” Ambler said. “Every year, our scorecard is a reminder to states that progress is possible, but also a reminder of the work we have left to accomplish.”
Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy for the law center, said they look at what makes up effective gun violence prevention policies from a number of perspectives. It’s influenced by societal trends, local data and feedback from communities on what they believe will best support them.
She told the WTE that lawmakers and government officials frequently reach out following the scorecard releases to find out how they can improve, and the law center works actively to develop policies to match those needs.
“We do most of our work and invest most of our resources into states that have a majority of legislators who care about gun violence and how it affects their constituents,” Anderman said. “In states where the legislatures are dominated by gun extremists who would prefer to accept the status quo than make any change, we don’t really work that closely.
“However, there are always legislators, even in those states, who do care about gun violence and the toll it takes on their constituents, and so when requested to, we support those legislators in any way that we can.”
Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, is one lawmaker out of the 93 elected who doesn’t believe any of the proposals would pass in the Wyoming Legislature.
He said the Article 1, Section 24 of the Wyoming Constitution clearly states that “the rights of Wyoming citizens to bear arms, not just keep arms, but to bear arms in defense of themselves around the state, shall not be denied.”
An example he gave was the effort to protect domestic violence victims. He said it was reasonable, but it depends on the details of the bill. It would never gain traction if it translated to a “red-flag law,” where he said a gun owner could have their firearms confiscated by the state without any type of judicial proceeding.
The Casper legislator also said taking guns away wouldn’t solve the issue. He said they should be focusing on the person and not the gun, because a domestic violence perpetrator might find other means to carry out abuse, or law enforcement may not be able to track down every gun.
Washut added that the Giffords Law Center doesn’t just want to add waiting periods or licensing, but rather create an ability for victims of gun violence to be able to sue the gun manufacturer.
“Well, imagine if we switch that over to alcohol,” he said. “And now we’re going to allow victims of domestic violence who are attacked by a drunken partner, or people who are hit by a drunk driver to sue Coors or sue Jim Beam.”
Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said it doesn’t matter what the Legislature does, the state will always rank poorly with gun violence prevention organizations that conduct the reports.
“They want to eliminate gun ownership in the United States, let’s be very clear. The path they take is toward disarming our population,” he said. “That’s what it really does long term. I don’t care if it’s registering guns, putting gun locks on — they will not quit. At any point, if Wyoming moved up from an ‘F’ to a ‘C,’ they’re still going to come after us and try to say ‘You don’t do enough.’”
Both the lawmakers questioned the way the data was presented, because “they throw in accidents, suicides, murders and justifiable use of firearms and self-defense” as gun deaths, Washut said. He added those are four very different phenomenons, and each has to be addressed in a different manner.
“We can achieve a decrease in accidental gun deaths by means other than gun control, such as safety training, education — and that doesn’t have to be mandated by the government, it can be voluntary participation in gun safety training,” he said.
Driskill added that if he were to provide a scorecard for the Giffords Law Center, he said he would give them an “F.” He said they have violated the Second Amendment and restricted rights that were constitutionally given to gun owners. Driskill said the Constitution was designed to be followed, and it shouldn’t be destroyed by stripping away pieces of it.
These comments were challenged by Anderman, who said those who oppose “common-sense, effective and extraordinarily popular policies like background checks” are absolutists.
“That means that they consider any regulation on firearms to be a violation of their constitutional rights,” she said. “The Supreme Court has never held a position that that is that extreme. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the Second Amendment allows for a lot of regulation.”
“These are people who oppose any and all gun safety measures. And that’s a type of extremism and absolutism that not only isn’t worth engaging in, but it is not remotely supported by the American public and even people in Wyoming,” she continued. “Over 90% of Americans consistently say that they support universal background checks, yet the people that you spoke with have called that gun-grabbing.”
Driskill stood by his belief that protecting the Second Amendment is the Wyoming way.
“We’ve just got guns as a part of our culture, and that’s not going to go away,” he told the WTE. “If you try to ban them, it’s still there.”
He was backed by Washut, who said the average resident in Wyoming wouldn’t want to be like high-ranking states, such as California and New Jersey. He said he was confident they would feel considerably safer walking around in their own Wyoming neighborhood than in Los Angeles or Newark.
“The number of firearms that we have in Wyoming reflects a population of people who have grown up with firearms, who’ve had firearms their entire lives and who use them responsibly,” he said. “So, I’m glad that we have those kinds of protections, and that we honor and cherish that constitutional right.”
Wyoming is recognized as a haven by those living outside of the state, too.
Guns and Ammo published a rating of the best states for gun owners in 2022, and Wyoming was ranked most gun-friendly.
“Wyoming extended its permitless carry law in 2021 to include nonresidents, which brought its score up to 10 points in that and every other category,” wrote Keith Wood. “Like most of its neighbors, Wyoming is a true paradise for gun owners with a strong showing across the board. From our view, Wyoming stands the best odds of maintaining its culture, thanks to an unlikely (but strong) force: Brutal winter winds. Everyone loves Wyoming in the summer, but come February, we don’t see a mass of left-coasters making the Cowboy State their permanent home.”
Wyoming State Shooting Association President Kenneth Lankford is a lifelong resident who has faced the winters and takes pride in the culture. He has grown up around guns his entire life, and spoke of his hunting and shooting competition background. Lankford has extensive training when it comes to firearms, and has passed that down to his family.
While he enjoys firearms for the sport, there is also an important safety aspect to him. He said he “is in charge of his own destiny,” because he lives 45 minutes outside of Laramie and the local sheriff’s office would take time to get with him in the case of an emergency. The shooting association president has the ability to stand his ground in his own home, and he believes that many citizens of the state want to keep the same right.
Personal responsibility and education were a big argument against legislative action, but there was also a question of societal unrest.
“There should be a study done about what has transpired and what kind of experiences perpetrators had prior to the horrible, violent acts committed,” Lankford said. “I don’t think you’re going to find them in gun education classes. You’re certainly going to see them watching videos, TV shows exploiting violence to the ninth degree.”
He said the younger generation is being exposed to violence, and they have to look at the entertainment and software industry if they are going to address the issue. He said if gun violence preventionists want to flag gun owners or force them to register, then they need to “go after the entertainment industry and tax them for every bullet they put on the air.”
Driskill said he went to high school in Hulett, and virtually every vehicle had a rifle in the back window and an unlocked pistol on the seat with shells in them. He said they didn’t seem to have a huge problem then, and asked, “Where have we gone in society?”
He said they have to look at the education system, as well as cultural beliefs at this point in time.
Wyoming has had no reports of mass shootings in schools or in other public spaces, but there is still an outcry from organizations to address suicide rates.
The Senate president was a strong proponent throughout this year’s session for bettering access to mental health services and supporting Wyomingites who are struggling. However, he said taking away Second Amendment rights won’t solve the issue. Driskill said they can bring the number of suicides done with guns down, but they’re going to see an increase in deaths by car wrecks or in other ways.
“Because the root of suicide isn’t the gun, that’s the tool they use,” he said. “Problem with suicide is that they’ve decided to commit suicide, and that’s what we need to deal with.”