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Bill to share mental health info with feds survives committee vote

CHEYENNE - A bill to mandate Wyoming share disqualifying mental health information on potential firearms purchasers with the federal background check system is still alive for a potential 2020 vote.

The proposed legislation would mandate Wyoming report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System information on people whose mental health issues would disqualify them from owning a firearm. The proposed legislation would also create a legal process to reinstate rights for people in Wyoming who have been disqualified from owning a firearm for mental health reasons.

Under federal law, someone is barred from owning a firearm for several reasons, including if they’ve been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or a court declared them a danger to themselves and others.

Currently, Wyoming is one of 11 states that doesn’t have a process that mandates courts or law enforcement to share disqualifying mental health information to NICS. States like Alabama, Mississippi and Idaho all have some form of requirement to report mental health issues to NICS, while Montana, Utah and Nebraska are among those with no NICS requirements.

The Joint Judiciary Interim Committee worked the bill Friday and amended some of the language, including mandating the court hearing for a petition to reinstate gun rights would remain private. Most of those changes were recommended by Nephi Cole, a representative from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Cole said that organization, which is the industry group for the nation’s firearms retailers, supports much of the bill, but saw some areas of improvement. He also said his group is in lockstep with the National Rifle Association to make sure this bill doesn’t become a back door to universal background checks or a red-flag bill.

“If we’re going to run a background check on you, our dealers want it to work. That, to us, is what this is about,” Cole said. “Our dealers deserve to know when they run that background check if we’re intentionally leaving data out of that system and leaving our dealers in peril.”

Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, said his membership wanted to see the state connect with NICS. For them, it made sense to have a way to ensure a buyer was being truthful when asked about any restrictions on them.

“NICS is the only way for a dealer to check that someone is being honest,” Oedekoven said. “If we’re not compliant, those dealers Mr. Cole represents would be forced to say we can’t rely on instant background checks. We’d have to go back to a waiting period on all Wyoming firearm purchases, which we don’t want to do, either.”

Judiciary Committee co-Chairwoman Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said the bill is primarily focused on ensuring the rights of gun owners can be reinstated if they’ve been prevented from purchasing one due to a court order based on mental health.

“(Currently) there’s not a process for the restoration of those rights,” Nethercott said.

While there was limited public comment on the bill, several people did speak out against it as a clear infringement on the right to bear arms.

Former state Sen. Kit Jennings, R-Casper, said the state shouldn’t be sending any information on firearm buyers to the federal government. And while taking a gun away from someone who could be a threat to others could work, taking a gun away from someone who is a threat to themselves wouldn’t solve anything.

“You have to look closely at those words. Is the person who is a danger to himself a danger to others?” Jennings said. “Taking a gun away from a guy who really wants to commit suicide probably isn’t going to stop them.”

Jennings said if someone is dealing with depression at some point in their lives, it could prevent them from owning a gun, no matter what circumstances have changed.

While there was no vote or any debate among Judiciary Committee members on the bill, Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, gave a preview of his stance before the committee ended the topic.

Salazar made it a point to say to the audience in person and watching online that his constituents know where he stands on the bill. And he said he would be voicing that opinion at the next committee meetings, scheduled for Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.