Robert Gehrke: This attempt by Salt Lake County’s mayor to end the gun show loophole is likely to result in a shootout with the Legislature

Robert Gehrke

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is taking the most definitive steps to date to close the so-called gun show loophole and, in doing so, is kicking a hornet’s nest.

On Monday, Wilson is expected to announce that the two companies that put on gun shows in the county-owned Mountain America Expo Center will require background checks for private sales. Licensed firearms dealers already have to do the checks.

“When she learned some personal firearm sales were happening in Salt Lake County-owned facilities with no background checks, she realized it was something she could influence,” said Wilson’s spokeswoman, Chloe Morroni. “She could ensure background checks are required for every firearm sold.”

“She has no illusions that this will solve the gun violence problem, but it is within her jurisdiction and authority,” Morroni said.

As you might expect, gun advocates are not pleased, to say the least, accusing Wilson of violating state law and imposing arbitrary, unwarranted conditions on the use of county facilities based solely on her political views.

A backlash is already building, with legislators and other state officials being called on to intervene.

I fully understand the arguments against background checks on private sales at gun shows: Federal data shows private sales account for a small portion of the firearms used in crimes, between 4% and 7%; it’s inconvenient and more expensive for the seller; parties can walk out the door and conduct the same transaction without the background check or a buyer can find another seller online.

All of those are completely legitimate.

Those exact same arguments could also apply to any background check on any sale. But we still require them because — while we can’t keep weapons out of the hands of every person who shouldn’t have them — we keep them away from some of them.

Checks can result in people being denied guns.

In the past year, the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification background checks resulted in 1,267 denials. And while that’s only 13 out of every 1,000 checks run, it has prevented guns from being sold to convicted and pending felons, perpetrators of domestic violence, drug offenders and people adjudicated as mentally ill.

And, while studies on the effectiveness of background checks is all over the map, a Rand study in 2017 indicated that background checks led to a slight reduction in suicide and violent crime.

More than one out of every five gun sales nationally, however, are done without a background check, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics and 3% of gun owners report making their most recent purchase at a gun show. So Wilson’s goal is to expand the checks and apply the safeguard to a few more sales.

“The mayor supports the rights of lawful gun owners,” but those prohibited from owning a gun shouldn’t be buying them in county facilities, Morroni said. “Responsible gun ownership should include responsible buying and selling.”

Here’s the rub: Utah law prohibits cities and counties from imposing any regulations on the ownership, possession, purchase, transfer or transport of a gun. Only the Legislature can do that. In 2006, the Utah Supreme Court used that law to strike down an attempt by the University of Utah to ban guns on campus.

Wilson, in consultation with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office, think they’ve found a way around that by persuading — gun rights advocates say coercing — the gun show operators to impose the requirement in order to use the county-owned facility.

And, because it is the county’s management company, SMG Management, which is making the request, it doesn’t, from the mayor’s viewpoint, run afoul of the state law.

“We had such a good relationship [with the promoters] we felt pretty confident in going to them and talking about the goals and figuring out how to get there,” said Dan Hayes, SMG general manager. One of the companies has signed the agreement with the new condition and talks are ongoing with the other, he said.

Under the arrangement, SMG will hire a federally licensed dealer to conduct the background checks for private sales, he said.

I tried to contact the organizers of both the Crossroads and Rocky Mountain gun shows and didn’t hear back. But Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said the organizers had no choice but to capitulate because the county “had them over a barrel.”

“Either sign the new contract with the new provisions in it or don’t get any dates and, in fact, erase the dates you already have on the calendar,” he said. The Rocky Mountain Gun Show, for example, is scheduled to be in the facility Jan. 11, 2020.

Aposhian said he asked both Wilson and Gill to point to where private sales have been a problem and neither could. “This is virtue-signaling at its best,” he said.

Gun rights proponent Jeremy Roberts likened Wilson to Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a landmark court ruling because she objected to the practice.

If the mayor can impose arbitrary restrictions based on her political views, he argues, what’s to keep another mayor from refusing to rent county facilities to LGBTQ groups or ethnic or religious minorities?

The energy would be better spent, he said, educating people on suicide prevention and domestic violence awareness.

Roberts and Aposhian have contacted the attorney general’s office and state legislators and asked the auditor to look into whether the county is violating the law.

So you can bet that this issue will end up a hot topic before lawmakers when they convene next month and, if history is a guide, Wilson and the county could find themselves in the crosshairs of some old fashioned legislative payback.