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Salt Lake City in no rush to scrap its gun laws

Published September 2, 2014 1:03 pm

Utah law vs. local control • Mayor Becker not looking for a showdown with the state over gun rules.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mayor Ralph Becker is no Michael Bloomberg when it comes to gun control.

Becker, mayor of Salt Lake City and soon to be president of the National League of Cities, has no intention of leading a crusade against what he sees as too-lax firearms laws.

The Democrat supports what he considers common-sense gun control and, in the days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., he signed onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors letter advocating a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, along with universal background checks. But he did it quietly — no news conferences.

Gun violence and proliferation are not among Becker's top priorities as mayor or as incoming head of the national organization that represents some 18,000 cities nationwide. It's not even close to the top.

"It's not because I don't have opinions about guns and safety and the Second Amendment," Becker says. "I have opinions like probably every other person in the country on those issues, but I really have not been very engaged."

The two-term mayor had a consistent record voting against looser gun laws during his years in the Utah Legislature, but he rarely spoke out on those bills.

"Between [guns] and liquor laws, I just figured, 'You know what, I'm not going to have much influence on this area, so I'm not going to spend much time on it.' "

It's an approach he's stuck with in his 6½ years at the helm of a rare Utah bastion of progressive politics in a sea of conservative Republicanism.

Now, thanks to the campaign of a national gun-rights group, he's going to have to confront the issue. The Second Amendment Foundation, going state by state and city by city, is focusing on the Beehive State and has written to 49 Utah cities — including the capital — demanding they repeal gun restrictions the group says violate state law.

Becker still isn't much engaged on the topic.

He's aware of the controversy in "vague and general ways," he says in an interview, adding he doesn't know much about it except that the city attorney is reviewing the demand.

The foundation's letter singles out two Salt Lake City ordinances as potential targets for a lawsuit: its ban on carrying guns in parks and one prohibiting guns in non-secure areas of Salt Lake City International Airport.

"I just don't have a strong opinion about it," Becker says.

"You know, there are obviously areas at the airport where guns should not and cannot be allowed for obvious reasons in terms of security," he says. "[But] why an airport parking lot that's 100 yards or 1,000 yards from the terminal is different from another parking lot in another part of the city, I'm not sure I know what the rationale is. I obviously don't want people with heavy artillery out there."

Utah legislators, like lawmakers in many states, have reserved for themselves most of the authority to regulate guns. Local governments are left with the basic ability to restrict the discharge or brandishing of firearms.

Usually a strong proponent of local control and a vocal critic of state overreach, Becker says he can see some justification in having a statewide gun policy.

"The fact of the matter is, most people don't know whether they're in Salt Lake City or Murray or South Salt Lake or Salt Lake County or wherever, right? And so it obviously can get awfully confusing for the public if there isn't a consistent set of standards."

The bottom line is Becker is waiting for the city attorney's advice and likely will follow it in making a recommendation to the City Council.

Without a serious policy disagreement, he says, "in my mind our role is to be in compliance with the law."

Several of the Utah cities put on notice by the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation have acted quickly to rid their local codes of what the gun-rights group has called "offensive" ordinances. In recent days, Sandy and Draper dumped laws banning guns in parks, recreational facilities and on trails. West Point, in Davis County, scrapped a prohibition of firearms in the city cemetery. South Salt Lake is scheduled to vote on changing its ordinances Wednesday.

It might not happen so quickly and cleanly in Utah's capital.

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke says he's in no rush to put on the council agenda a proposal "to change something that doesn't seem to be broken" and doubts it will see action anytime soon.

When it does, there could be more pushback than in other cities, Luke says. "You can guarantee that there will be more debate."

Councilman Kyle LaMalfa acknowledges not being fully informed about the issue but says the city has no interest in violating state law. At the same time, he adds, "public safety is the number one thing, and I know that there is a lot of controversy over what constitutes the safest environment. But, as the council, that's our main concern — that people not only feel safe but they are safe. As a council member, that's how I'm going to approach any decision."

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall expresses a similar view.

"I wish this actually had more to do with the public's best interest, but unfortunately we're dealing with an ordinance issue." She wants to review the city's legal opinion and options before saying more. —

Cities warned to amend gun laws:

American Fork

Brigham City

Bountiful

Cedar City

Delta

Draper

Duchesne

Eagle Mountain

Elk Ridge

Enoch

Fillmore

Garden City

Grantsville

Herriman

Holladay

Hurricane

Hyrum

Ivins

Kanab

La Verkin

Levan

Moab

Murray

North Logan

North Salt Lake

Ogden

Park City

Pleasant View

Price

Provo

Richfield

Salt Lake City

Sandy

Santa Clara

South Ogden

South Salt Lake

Springdale

St. George

Taylorsville

Vernal

Washington City

Wendover

West Jordan

West Point

West Valley

Woods Cross

Counties • Utah, Summit