By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
The Wyoming House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a law restoring nonviolent felons’ gun rights as soon as they complete their sentences, despite opponents’ concerns that the bill could be inadvertent gun control.
Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan, stalled the bill for another discussion just before its final House vote. He and others had voiced concerns this week that SF 120 had a secret gun control provision.
The bill adds a state law removing gun rights from nonviolent felons, which Wyoming doesn’t have currently. Federal law strips nonviolent felons of gun rights but Wyoming state law does not.
Bill sponsor Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, told the House Judiciary Committee this month that he inserted the gun-stripping penalty into the bill to establish the nexus federal law requires.
“You have to have that nexus,” said Barlow. “It’s hard to restore something we didn’t actually take away, because of the way the federal government is now handling this.”
Pendergraft on Monday pleaded with his colleagues not to pass SF 120 this session, because he wanted to seek alternate routes to restore gun rights without having to remove them from nonviolent felons on a state level.
He renewed that plea Wednesday.
“I’m an old soldier,” he said. “When you see a danger there (you must) alert your fellow that you see a danger. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.”
Pendergraft said he agrees “wholeheartedly” with the move to restore gun and other rights to nonviolent felons, but feared the bill’s language could lead to the erosion of “my treasured Second Amendment.”
An earlier House version of Senate File 120 would have restored non-violent felons’ gun, office-holding and jury rights five years after they’d served their time. But Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, led an amendment to restore those rights immediately after the sentence ends.
Haroldson’s amendment passed by one vote: 28-27.
“Once they’ve served their time, they can request to have their rights back,” said Haroldson. “We’re almost (under the earlier version) sentencing them to another five years of punishment after they’ve served.”
Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, who is a county prosecutor, said it would be better to wait five years.
“I promise you, there’s some really significant things that happen, that end in felony convictions,” said Oakley, adding that she found five years to be a conservative proposition. “It also gives some time for the (restoration) process to work.”
Wyoming Department of Corrections staffers began restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons in 2018. According to Barlow’s committee testimony, the state has restored voting rights to 3,400 people since then, and those would automatically receive their gun and other rights back when SF 120 becomes law.
The bill is near to becoming law and needs only to survive a concurrence vote in the Senate and the governor’s desk after its Wednesday House passage.
It will appropriate $60,000 to the Department of Corrections to fund an employee for a year to process restorations.
SF 120 only would restore gun rights to people convicted of state felonies. Federal felons cannot regain their gun rights without a presidential pardon, according to the Legislature’s staff analysis.