CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming legislative leaders on Thursday decried what they said were rude and threatening lobbying tactics by supporters of gun rights bills and other hotly debated issues in the legislative session that ended this week.
"What I really wanted to talk to you about here today was getting the word out about protecting the institution of the citizens' Legislature," Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, told reporters at a news conference at the state Capitol.
"You've seen what's gone on this session," he said. "This institution is under attack, and I mean that seriously."
Ross and House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, have said lawmakers were deluged with emails on gun bills and measures that would have extended more rights to gays and lesbians.
They said many emails and other communications on social media were profane and abusive while some were overtly threatening.
"When legislators receive death threats to themselves, or to their families, it is time for civility," Ross said. "It is time for us to act in a better fashion."
Senate Majority Floor Leader Sen. Phil Nicholas, a Laramie Republican who controls which bills get a hearing in the Senate, refused last week to call a vote on a bill that sought to exempt Wyoming from any federal assault weapons ban. That bill and a companion gun measure died as a result.
Nicholas said last week he believed the bills were intentionally poorly drafted. He said lawmakers who opposed or tried to amend them were targeted for personal criticism by the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, which he said tried to raise funds in light of the controversy.
Anthony Bouchard, head of the association, said Thursday his group hasn't engaged in improper lobbying or tactics.
"It sounds like a bunch of grumbling without any proof, and that's what politicians do when they realize that they have constituents that they're supposed to be working for," Bouchard said. "My point is that all we do is tell people what they're doing."
Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, was singled out for criticism on the association's Facebook page after he proposed an amendment to remove constitutionally questionable language that sought to subject federal officials to criminal sanctions for enforcing a gun ban in the state. One person posted what they said was Christensen's home telephone number with the suggestion that supporters of the bill swamp his home with calls.
Nicholas said he was reluctant to say whether he and other lawmakers were speaking Thursday only about the Wyoming Gun Owners Association or other groups.
"My personal view is we're seeing a greater number of these one-issue groups that are prepared to devise legislation that is so polarizing that they know in advance that rational legislators are not going to vote for it," Nicholas said.
When the bills run into trouble, Nicholas said, the groups try to stir up their membership to raise funds. He said members, in turn, increasingly criticize legislators in rude or violent terms.
"And it's pretty amazing to see how a group can stir up ordinary neighbors to say things that they wouldn't otherwise say," he said.
Nicholas said lawmakers themselves must realize that when they're elected, they need to sever any ties to lobbying groups and take up the responsibility of legislating for all the people.
Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, said Wednesday he received a huge number of emails this session.
"Most of them suggested I leave the state," he said. "Many of them were threatening in nature."
Byrd, who is black, said he is thick-skinned.
"I've seen a lot of things, and heard a lot of things that would make most of you rear back in your seat, and that just kind of rolls off my back," he said. "But the idea that these things would come at this level, and be pointed at subverting our process of government here for the individual, just amazes me."