Rod Miller: Guns and Law in Wyoming

in Column/Rod Miller

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By Rod Miller, Cowboy State Daily columnist

Thirty years or more ago, I had a beer with a friend who had been dean of the UW College of Law. One beer, and it took about three hours. While my beer went flat, I got a senior seminar on the Constitution of the State of Wyoming and my mind blown. What a magnificent document our Constitution is!

In our republic, states are often called “the laboratories of democracy” and each state’s constitution is the Petri dish where new variants of the U.S. Constitution are tested. Here’s an example: Everyone knows that our federal Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and enumerates the inviolable rights of citizens, 10 of ‘em. But the 45 framers of our Wyoming Constitution went a bit further.

Article 1 of our state Constitution is our “Declaration of Rights,” right there up front, and not appended as amendments. Rights, in Wyoming, are not an afterthought. And there are 37 of them! Those 45 old, white guys who framed our Constitution, I believe, wanted to make it abundantly clear that civil rights come first in Wyoming.

And I also believe that they listed these rights in a sort of ordinal hierarchy, the most important being first. The first three sections of Article 1 are some of the most inspiring political writing I have ever come across – “All power is inherent in the people,” and “all members of the human race are equal.” The framers took great care to address how political power would be wielded here, and how it should be equally distributed among all citizens. Powerful stuff, my friends!

Article 1 proceeds to define how these rights will be protected through the processes of law, habeas corpus, open courts, religious liberty, separation of church and state, the freedoms of speech and assembly, protection of labor and education. The logic is easy to follow, and its a roadmap for a free, civil society.

The framers enumerated 23 citizens’ rights before there is any mention of guns. You heard me correctly, guns come in 24th. Section 24 reads, “The right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and of the state shall not be denied.” This, to me, is much clearer language than the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but guns are still way down the list.

I don’t believe that firearm ownership was an afterthought to our framers. Instead, I believe they wanted to take care of first things first. They, very wisely, defined citizens’ rights first and then defined the means to protect those rights on a personal level.

This brings us to a moment of cognitive dissonance in this year’s election. Why are a handful of gun zealots campaigning from a position of firearms being the most important thing in life? The implication is that if you have a gun, all of the other stuff in life is somehow taken care of. Like the first 23 sections in our “Declaration of Rights” don’t matter.

Guns have become powerful political symbols, and these candidates and the organizations that fund and encourage them are masters at manipulating that symbology. They appeal to raw emotions and fear, trying to supplant our entire body of law with a man-made tool. It’s almost as if nothing else matters to them.

That brings us back to Article 1, Section 1, “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority…” So, the people of Wyoming, through their sacred right of voting, can reject this single-issue idiocy if they so choose. They can vote for candidates who embrace the entire Constitution, not just one sentence in it.

I hope your beer didn’t go flat while you were reading this, and perhaps I’ve prompted you to go dust off your copy of the Wyoming Constitution to see exactly where gun rights fall in the thinking of its framers. Twenty-fourth. So let it be written, so let it be done.

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