Gehrke: If we want to keep guns out of the wrong hands, we need to do a better job enforcing this Utah law

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Twenty-five people a week who were legally banned from owning a gun went into a store in Utah and tried to buy one during a three-month period last year, tracked as part of a state-run pilot project.

On average, four of those people each week were considered the “highest risk” offenders, largely because they had committed multiple violent felonies, had domestic violence convictions or outstanding protective orders, according to the study by the State Bureau of Investigation.

In 2017, the Department of Public Safety reported that 1,526 restricted persons attempted to buy a gun.

I suppose the good news is that these people were stopped — although, let’s be honest, there are easy ways around those checks. Nonetheless, the checks are working. What happens after that is less cut-and-dry.

When a prohibited individual attempts to buy a firearm, it’s a felony, punishable by as much as 15 years in prison. And Utah’s Bureau of Criminal Identification, or BCI, notifies local police about each incident.

And then? Most of the time, they aren’t investigated and no charges are filed.

“The problem is that’s not happening as much,” said Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson.

West Valley City police Detective David Black told legislators Wednesday that he was surprised when he joined the department a few years ago to see that most of those referrals from BCI ended up in the trash can.

Keep in mind that these are felonies, hundreds of them committed every year, that police departments don’t bother to investigate.

Black said he helped institute protocols in West Valley City requiring investigators to follow up on the denials. In one instance, charges recently were filed against a man who had assaulted both of his daughters and sliced his wife with broken glassware — and then wanted to buy a gun. What could go wrong?

Ten cases were referred to prosecutors as a result of the State Bureau of Investigation’s three-month pilot project that I mentioned above. This year, the bureau is asking the Legislature for an additional $340,000 to hire two investigators and an analyst to follow up on illegal attempts to buy a gun.

“What we recognize at the state level is there’s no oversight as far as someone to monitor that,” Anderson, the state commissioner, told me.

Unfortunately, the committee that sets the public safety budget put it near the bottom of its priority list, meaning chances are slim those people will be hired.

Really, though, this should be something local law enforcement investigates, and there are efforts to make sure they do.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, has a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to submit an annual report to the Legislature on how they deal with attempted purchases that were denied specifically on the grounds of a domestic violence conviction.

This is important because two-thirds of women who are murdered are killed by a current or former partner, according to a state study last year. More than nine out of 10 murder-suicides were committed by a partner or family member.

A bill by Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna, would go further, requiring BCI to notify local police within 30 minutes of a denial so they can respond promptly. It also would enhance the penalty for committing an act of domestic violence while in possession of a firearm.

These bills would be a good start, but obviously won’t entirely keep guns out of the wrong hands. There are too many ways through private sales to get around the background checks. King also has a bill to close that loophole, but that proposal has little chance of passing in this conservative Legislature.

There’s one other gun bill that will keep people safe that is completely stalled: Rep. Steve Handy’s red-flag bill — which would allow a court to order individuals to surrender their guns if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others — has been held up in the House Rules Committee. Half of all suicides are committed with a gun. The red-flag bill was a top recommendation of a school safety commission, the public supports the measure, it would save lives and it deserves to be heard.

These are common-sense steps that even Utah’s gun-toting Legislature should be able to get behind and, if it does, Utah could see a reduction in gun violence and suicide.