A bill that would prohibit people from openly carrying a gun within 500 feet of any K-12 school in Utah was defeated in committee Wednesday after complaints from gun lobbyists and Republican lawmakers.
It would punish hunters, one man argued. It would put more restrictions on law-abiding gun owners than convicted sex offenders, said another. It wouldn’t stop a would-be school shooter anyway, suggested a third.
“There will be people in violation every day,” added Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry.
Despite strong pushback on those comments, particularly from the Utah chapter of March for Our Lives (a student group urging gun reform after the deadly school shooting in Florida last year), HB217 was rejected with a vote that fell along party lines. Six GOP members of the House Law Enforcement Committee opposed it while two Democrats supported it.
Currently, Utah law blocks the open carry — but not concealed carry — of a gun inside any elementary, middle or high school. But outside, it’s allowed. The state Legislature passed a measure in 2011 that removed the 1,000-foot gun-free zone around schools for people to carry a firearm openly.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, the sponsor of HB217, proposed the 500-foot buffer in his bill as a compromise.
“Right now, a gun could be walked up to the front door of a school,” he said Wednesday. “This is one limit I think is reasonable.”
Briscoe has said the proposal would make schools “psychologically more secure,” particularly after the Florida shooting reignited the national outcry for gun restrictions and more schools have held lockdowns out of renewed fear.
His bill would have added seven lines to state law. And it would have exempted open carry within the gun-free zone by people who live or work within 500 feet of a school or have a gun in their car as they drive through one, especially when picking up or dropping off a student for class. Anyone else who broke that regulation could have been charged with a misdemeanor if apprehended by police.
“I’m not trying to lock people up,” Briscoe argued. “I’m not trying to get people felonies.”
Anna Penner, a senior at West High School and a leader of the March for Our Lives organization in Utah, was disappointed by the vote Wednesday. She saw the bill as a way to make students feel more secure while also protecting the rights of gun owners. She’s been in several lockdowns after someone has walked past her school with a firearm — and they cause a lot of stress and anxiety for students, Penner said.
“We’re lucky none of those guns made it through the front door,” she added. “But we don’t know that we’ll be as lucky next time.”
Nate Salazar, a member of the Salt Lake City School Board, also said the drills have an emotional impact on students. Elementary kids sometimes cry when they see police cars in front of their schools and are rushed inside from recess during a threat. Students at East High School had to be slowly coaxed out of closets after a lockdown there ended last year.
But Perry, who said several people in his rural area hunt birds within 500 feet of schools, and Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, both said there isn’t a pattern of problems to require the buffer zone in the state. With just a week left in the legislative session, there appears little chance of the bill being resurrected.