THE BUZZ: Gunning for Justice

By on December 15, 2015

Taking sides and aim at the Second Amendment in the wake of mass shootings.

The numbers don’t lie – the Cowboy State is gun-crazed.

The numbers don’t lie – the Cowboy State is gun-crazed.

Jackson Hole, WY – The candlelight vigil held last Thursday night on Town Square was to commemorate the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy. It was also held to recognize the 90,000 Americans who have been victims of gun violence since that time. Nonetheless, some residents viewed the event as more of a political rally aimed at gaining support for tighter gun control legislation.

“This ‘vigil’ was part of a national anti-gun campaign to promote gun control legislation,” declared Shep Humphries on his website Counter Violence Institute. Humphries, an ex-law enforcement officer, is now a shooting instructor and owner of Jackson Hole Shooting Experience. While company policy is to avoid taking an official stance on the issue of gun control, Humphries has been outspoken about his fear the Second Amendment is under attack.

St. John’s Episcopal Church partnered with the Newtown Foundation to sponsor the vigil. Newtown Foundation (Newtown Action Alliance) is a nonprofit that launched following the Sandy Hook mass shooting. Its stated goal is “reversing the escalating gun violence epidemic in this nation,” though some claim the organization is actively lobbying for stricter gun laws.

Humphries also stated on his website: “This anti-gun political campaign wisely uses advanced propaganda and psychological operations techniques, including getting government officials to appear to be on their side. These officials must appear to be in agreement with their audience, so they will not ‘out’ fake events like this one as being political.”

Guns in Wyoming

151216Buzz-2_origWyoming is gun crazy. Official tallies are hard to come by since state residents are not required to register guns and national background checks are reported differently state-by-state. But general estimates put the Cowboy State at the top of the pack with anywhere from 60 to 63 percent of households possessing at least one firearm, and an estimated total of more than half a million guns in the state.

According to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record from 2014, there are 114,052 registered firearms in Wyoming. That works out to 19.6 per 100 residents — easily leading the way among all states, and it’s not even close according to a recent Bloomberg ranking.

Battle lines over the Second Amendment are fast becoming a political issue as an epidemic of mass shootings plays out daily in newspaper headlines. Yes, daily. According to Mass Shooting Tracker, there have been to date 353 mass shooting incidents (defined by the FBI as involving four or more victims).

Firearm owners cite their statistics; gun control lobbyists have theirs. The numbers rarely match. For instance, high gun ownership leads to increased rates of gun violence, according to data presented by several gun control interests like Smart Gun Laws.

Wyoming is often used as the perfect example. The state consistently ranks near the top in highest overall gun death rates. According to analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2011, Wyoming had a gun death rate of 16.92 per 100,000 people, ranking the state fourth most dangerous overall.

Wait just a minute, says Ken Willis. Willis, a retired Jackson Hole lawyer, is an impassioned activist and blogger (TeeJaw.com).

“Wyoming has pretty good gun laws. It’s not a shoot ’em up cowboy state like some people think,” Willis said. “And it’s not very honest to count suicide as gun violence. Suicide is a whole separate problem issue in itself.”

Willis is referring to suicide numbers included in gun death statistics. Wyoming has the highest suicide rate of any state and more than two-thirds of self-inflicted mortality comes via the use of a firearm. When those numbers are pulled out of the equation, Wyoming looks a lot safer.

According to FBI crime statistics, eight people were murdered in the state of Wyoming in 2010 — five of those murders involved a gun. That works out to fewer than one gun murder per 100,000 people, ranking Wyoming in the top 10 safest. Vermont tops the list with just 0.3 gun murders per 100,000 residents, and that state has the laxest gun laws in the country.

“You are not going to get guns out of the hands of someone who really wants one. There are 300 million guns in America,” Willis said. “And most of these statistics show guns aren’t the problem. Look at places like Plano, Texas. They are gun nuts central, and I don’t think they’ve have had a murder in decades. It’s one of the most law-abiding places on earth.”

Guns in Jackson

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Perhaps unsurprising to Wyomingites is that they rank as the most gun-toting bunch in the nation, with Montana holding strong in a close second.

Jackson police chief Todd Smith, who spoke at the vigil in Jackson last week, carries a gun to work every day. And he doesn’t mind knowing that many of his non-cop friends and neighbors do too.

“It’s such a part of our culture here,” Smith said. “You could argue that when you look at gun ownership, maybe we’re an example for the country that you can have high gun ownership and low violent crime statistics. Where the rest of the country is talking about high guns equals high crime.”

Smith said his officers have had little trouble adjusting to Wyoming’s concealed carry law, changed in 2013 to allow gun owners to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

“The state Legislature process has done a good job of vetting those who may be allowed to carry. That puts an officer at ease in most cases,” Smith said. “It’s not required, but people are always encouraged to reveal they are carrying at a traffic stop, for example. It helps set a positive tone. Bottom line, if you are going to be a law enforcement officer in this state, you have to be cognizant and aware that people can possess firearms.”

A planned counter demonstration at last week’s anti-gun violence vigil never really materialized. Some in the community were calling for gun owners to attend the event with gun on hip. Smith has seen relatively few instances where open carry has caused concern.

“When the law first changed there were those on the extreme side of supporting the Second Amendment that wanted to test the waters,” Smith admitted. “We had an incident at a bank with someone carrying a firearm. It disturbed an employee there and they called. It turned out they were part of a group that does this around the country just trying to make a statement, push the envelope and make a report card on how each state responds. It was unfortunate because it puts an officer in an unnecessary situation trying to decide how to handle it.”

Party lines

Unsurprisingly, all 10 of the states with the highest gun ownership rates are staunchly Republican. And nine of the 10 states with the lowest gun ownership rates are considered Democratic states.

“It’s true that most of the people calling for more gun control are Democrats,” Willis said. “It is worrisome because I believe if they are ever successful in accomplishing what they want, America would become a much more violent place. But I think a national movement is less and less likely. A Rasmussen poll shows a majority are opposed to more gun control.”

Humphries, for one, isn’t so sure the right to bear arms is safe. He points to an affecting New York Times editorial appearing on Dec. 4 calling for new legislation adjusting the Second Amendment. The editorial decried the ease with which people in this country can obtain guns crafted for mass destruction. “It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency,” read the subhead by the editorial board. It was the first editorial to grace the front page of The New York Times since 1920.

For argument’s sake

Arguments on both sides of the gun issue are endless. Pro-gunners wrapping themselves in the Constitution say citizens should be armed in case their government goes all tyrannical. Opponents laugh at the absurdity of a band of freedom fighters opposing U.S. tanks, nuclear subs, and stealth bombers with their .44 revolvers.

The “good guy with a gun” scenario is more hotly debated. Could the presence of an armed citizen prevent or decrease the body count in a shooting spree scenario? And, more importantly, do states offering concealed carry pose a significant deterrent to anyone thinking about committing a violent crime?

Wyoming is one of only five states where a shooting spree has never taken place.

“I have a good question for the ‘more gun control people,’” Willis posed. “Would it have been a good idea if a police officer was in that clinic in San Bernardino? Yes, they would answer. But that’s not going to be possible, for police to be everywhere. What if a gun carrier was there? Would that have made a difference? If there had been one or two people there who had guns and knew how to use them, the outcome would have been different and a lot of lives could have been saved.”

Smith agrees that the prospect that someone in the vicinity, especially in Wyoming, is possibly armed creates a strong deterrent. “If I’m a bad guy in Wyoming it would probably cross my mind there is a strong possibility that someone in the room might be carrying,” Smith said.

But the police chief said just having a gun isn’t enough.

“I equate it to owning a horse. It’s easy to buy a horse at a Sunday auction but it doesn’t make you a horseman,” Smith explained. “It’s easy to buy a gun in Wyoming but that doesn’t make you a marksman. It takes time and practice, learning the pros and cons of that tool, to develop a higher skill set. I hire police officers all the time who have never touched a gun before. They become an asset to the community through training.” PJH

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