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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left to right; Ellen Brady, Monica Bellenger, Miriam Walkingshaw (President), and Delynn Elliott. These women represent a new anti-gun group called Utah Parents Against Gun Violence that formed during the 2013 Utah Legislature to oppose what members considered extreme gun legislation, including HB76, the so-called "constitutional carry" bill vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert.
Utah parents push for gun ‘sanity’
Violence » Gun-control activists target schools, Legislature so Sandy Hook ‘‘doesn’t happen here.’’
First Published May 14 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:31 pm

Miriam Walkingshaw’s world of creating wedding flowers and handpicked serenity shattered last summer when a gunman dressed for war strode into a Colorado movie theater and slaughtered 12 people, including a 6-year-old girl, during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

"I had a 6-year-old at the time, and, of course, he loves Batman," she says. "This is only one state away. It felt very close to home."

At a glance

Are Salt Lake City schools prepared?

Utah Parents Against Gun Violence has distributed a survey to all 38 schools in the Salt Lake City District to gauge what gun-safety measures are currently in place. The group intends to publish the results on its website, recommend revisions, then conduct a statewide survey. A sample of the questions include:

» Has your school ever conducted an “active shooter” simulation?

» Are classroom doors at your school equipped with the ability to be locked from the inside by the teacher?

» Are teachers at your school encouraged or discouraged from having firearms at the school?

» Is there a police officer or other armed, uniformed official stationed at your school?

» Does your school train students to identify and report individuals exhibiting aberrant mental health behaviors?

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The mass shooting that also injured 58 prompted Walkingshaw to research Utah’s gun policies. "I realized this can happen here."

Five months later, "horrified" by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Walkingshaw decided it was time to speak out.

"So many friends and family members told me not to. ‘This is the price we pay for gun rights and there’s nothing we can do,’ " she recalls hearing. "That horrified me even more. It really motivated me."

Turns out Walkingshaw had company — primarily among parents with young children — despite Utah’s entrenched gun culture and well-worn Western mind-set that abhors regulation.

The result: Utah Parents Against Gun Violence — a grass-roots group with roughly 40 members and 150 Facebook followers — whose aim is to fight for common-sense gun policy and "sanity" on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

"Here, passing something that is so blatantly common sense when it comes to guns feels like a major effort," explains Ellen Brady, a Parents member who also serves as a legislative district chairwoman and Democratic delegate. "Stopping things from getting even more insane feels like victory."

Mommy lobby » Like much political activism today, Parents took shape after a Facebook thread. Chatting online after the Connecticut shooting, co-founders Walkingshaw and Monica Bellenger discovered passionate mothers in their own backyard.

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"We found that there were a lot of people locally who felt lost — who felt they wanted to do something," Bellenger says. "While Utah is a very conservative state, the gun-rights advocates were getting all the attention. The other side of the debate hasn’t had much of an outlet — we want to provide that."

Group members found their voice during the 2013 Utah Legislature when they saw plenty to shout about. The group saturated social media, penned opinion pieces and stacked committee hearings — mostly in opposition to the HB76 constitutional-carry bill, vetoed in March by Gov. Gary Herbert. "Showing up is half the battle," Bellenger adds. "We’re going to continue. This is a long-term thing."

Feisty, and increasingly articulate in the gun-control debate, Parents pegs its influence nonetheless on being even-keeled. The group has gun owners — even National Rifle Association (NRA) members — in its midst, opposed the assault-weapons ban pushed by the White House and favors the preservation of Second Amendment rights. At the same time, members strongly back expanded background checks.

They are spearheading a gun-safe-storage public service campaign with Utah’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. And they are mobilizing their message from Utah’s Statehouse to its schools.

"Our focus right now is to connect with kindred parent spirits who don’t want to see another Sandy Hook happen here," says Stan Holmes, a Vietnam veteran and NRA member who will complete a 30-year teaching career at Alta High this spring. "It’s a matter of pushing the conversation forward."

‘Very reactionary’ » Even- tempered on the hot-button gun topic himself, Clark Aposhian doesn’t holster his opinion about Parents.

"This group is like others who popped up just after Sandy Hook: very reactionary," says the firearms instructor and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. "They’re not much of an influence. They’re an extremely small group — their name is probably bigger than the group."

Aposhian argues his council cannot direct state lawmakers to birth or kill gun bills — "We don’t have that kind of hubris" — and he suggests Parents’ influence will ultimately prove ineffective.

"This knee-jerk reactionary tone will go away," he says, predicting no meaningful gun-control legislation will be passed. "We know our position will withstand extreme scrutiny when the facts come out."

Brady, peering through a bloodier lens as a trained physician, sees gun violence differently — she sees victims. Between a policeman shot on duty and a child accidently shot at home to suicides, domestic spats and drive-by slayings, Brady says the frequency of shootings makes easier gun access hard to justify.

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