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Emergency or not, they want their guns

A Wyoming lawmaker proposes a bill to prohibit his state from seizing firearms, as was done after Katrina.

February 17, 2008|DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writer

CHEYENNE, WYO. — The worst trouble Allen Jaggi has seen in his 40 years here was a 50-below-zero blizzard that shut down the interstate for days.

Supplies ran low, but people took care of themselves and one another -- as they always do, the state representative said.

In a state that prides itself on its self-sufficiency, Jaggi can't imagine a situation that would dissolve into the chaos that characterized Hurricane Katrina.

Nor can he picture police in this gun-proud state going door to door, collecting weapons as they did in New Orleans.

House Bill 57 is "just in case."

Joining other lawmakers nationwide who say that, unlikely or not, they want to protect against such a scenario, the Republican has introduced legislation that prohibits the state from confiscating firearms from law-abiding residents during an emergency.

This year, Wyoming is one of at least five states to propose such a law; at least 21 others already have passed the legislation. It has been heavily promoted by the National Rifle Assn. in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While critics pan the approach as hand-wringing over something that isn't a realistic threat, the NRA rejoins that Louisiana residents probably considered it just as unlikely.

"I'm sure people in New Orleans thought it wasn't possible to happen to them," NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said. "It's crazy that it happened. We want to make sure it never happens again."

In the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane, there were reports of snipers firing at police officers and rescue workers, and New Orleans officials began confiscating guns. It's not clear how many were taken. The NRA puts the number in the thousands, but other reports put it around 700. Some residents never got their weapons back.

In 2006, the NRA, which filed a lawsuit against the city, launched a campaign asking mayors and police chiefs nationwide to pledge that they would not duplicate New Orleans' actions. The gun rights group also urged national and state lawmakers to put the same pledge into law.

That same year, Congress responded with a law that bars federal officials and law enforcement agencies that receive federal funds from confiscating guns during an emergency.

One by one, states -- mostly in the West, Midwest and South -- have followed with laws specifying that a state's emergency powers do not allow it to confiscate firearms. Most have passed with little or no opposition.

Those who have criticized the measures say they pander to the fears of extremists or could prevent police from protecting public safety, such as stopping people with guns from entering emergency shelters.

One state weighing the law this year is Nebraska, where Democratic state Sen. Kent Rogert said he introduced the bill at the urging of the NRA. Like Jaggi in Wyoming, he considers a disaster on the scale of Katrina unlikely, but said it was prudent to guard against potential abuses during an emergency.

"It's been a pretty popular issue in my district," Rogert said.

In Wyoming, Jaggi said he decided to propose the measure after meeting a state lawmaker from Louisiana last year.

A lifelong hunter who teaches gun safety classes, the 63-year-old retired biology teacher said it angered him that people were forced to give up guns they could have used in self- defense.

"I thought, 'Over my dead body,' " Jaggi said.

The Wyoming Assn. of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police doesn't oppose the proposal, which Executive Director Byron Oedekoven said did not compromise officers' ability to protect public safety. For example, the bill specifies that officers can confiscate weapons if they deem it necessary for self- protection.

Jaggi said he had received enthusiastic and broad-based support -- with the exception of the Casper Star-Tribune, which ran an editorial deriding the bill as a "National Rifle Association invention to solve a non-problem in Wyoming. . . . Sponsors contend the same thing could happen here. Really? Since when did Wyoming start electing officials that stupid?"

deedee.correll@latimes.com

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