Utah House speaker says it’s time to act, but Senate president prefers to wait and let educators respond to gun violence and school safety

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Speaker Greg Hughes talks about the new Utah School Safety Commission during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Thursday, March 1, 2018.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said Thursday he expects lawmakers will address gun violence before they adjourn next week, then take up additional ideas for protecting school and public safety in the coming months.

To help in that effort, Hughes and other lawmakers announced the creation of a new commission on school safety Thursday, made up of members of Utah’s law enforcement, education, health care and gun rights communities.

“We think it’s time to act,” the Draper Republican said. “And we think it’s time to act right now.”

Despite the need for a “record pace” to move legislation in the waning days of the 2018 session, Hughes said the process for debating gun safety will be thorough and deliberative.

“It’s not like the executive branch where you just have to convince yourself,” Hughes said Thursday. “It takes math to make something work in the Legislature.”

But legislative math includes the need for at least 15 votes in the Senate. And on Thursday, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, signaled that he is in no hurry to pass laws aimed at preventing school shootings.

“The Legislature and the Governor’s Office should take a back seat to our school boards and our superintendents,” Niederhauser said.

The Senate president spent the entirety of his daily news conference discussing school safety. He invited administrators from the Juab and Millard school districts to join him, saying lawmakers should defer to educators on the issue.

“They’re the ones that know this issue better than anyone,” he said. “They should be the ones leading out.”

Mary Nielson, president of the Utah School Boards Association, said district school board members and superintendents weren’t invited to participate on the Utah School Safety Commission.

She said student safety is best achieved through security features such as single entry points, cameras and electronic locks, which many school district currently use or are working to put in place.

“It’s different in every district,” she said. “We already are doing things to keep kids safe.”

The creation of the Utah School Safety Commission comes amid an intense national debate on gun reform and school security following last month’s shooting deaths of 17 students at a Florida high school.

Hughes said he expects commission members to make policy recommendations that could compel Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to call state legislators back into special session to pass them.

The Utah School Safety Commission includes Clark Aposhian, a gun rights advocate and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council; Dallas Earnshaw, superintendent of the Utah State Hospital; Brigham Young University sociology professor John Hoffmann; Keith Squires, commissioner for the Utah Department of Public Safety; Ron Gordon, general counsel for Herbert; Bryan Turner, an architect with Davis School District; Utah Education Association president Heidi Matthews; and Terryl Warner, a member of the Utah Board of Education.

“I want to make sure that everybody that walks through the doors of a public school or a private school or a nontraditional school feels safe,” Warner said.

The commission also intends to add two high school students as members, said Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, who organized the panel’s creation. Students are currently organizing a protest at the Utah Capitol — part of the national March For Our Lives campaign of student demonstrations — and Kennedy said he wished they could have been present for Thursday’s event.

“I wish they were actually marching today,” he said.

Kennedy said he expects the commission to make its recommendations before school starts next fall, but he resisted setting a firm deadline. He said that all ideas will be considered — including, he said, school construction and mental health services — but he declined to say whether the panel would look at restrictions on gun ownership.

“I don’t know what we’re going to decide,” Kennedy said.

The lawmaker also noted that the commission would focus on addressing school safety — as opposed to shootings at shopping malls, concerts and other public spaces.

“I prefer to start with peace in my home before I start with world peace,” Kennedy said.

Niederhauser also focused on school-level policies over statewide action on gun ownership. When asked about firearms, he said those questions should be looked at separate from the conversation about student safety.

“That’s not a local level decision,” he said, “that would be more of a state level discussion.”

One proposal legislators are likely to take up in the coming days is sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, and would create “extreme risk protective orders.” The new category of court-issued protective orders would allow authorities to seize an individual’s weapons if that person was deemed a risk to themselves or others.

“It’s not a gun bill, per se,” Handy said Thursday. “It’s about public safety and public health.”

Aposhian, with the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said he welcomed a discussion on Handy’s bill. The challenge, he said, will be balancing the needs of society with the rights of individual gun owners.

In 2013, a justice court judge ordered Aposhian to surrender his own firearms amid charges of domestic violence. Handy’s bill would expand the circumstances under which court orders could include requirements for surrendering weapons.

“We know by sad experience that due process has been abused,” Aposhian said Thursday. “It has affected a constitutional right.”

Herbert spokesman Paul Edwards said in a written statement that the governor is open to convening a special session to address public safety.

“If we can come to consensus,” Edwards said, “we would like to see a special session that could put solutions in place before the beginning of the school year.”

And during his own press conference Thursday, Herbert was asked about Niederhauser’s position that local school administrators should drive the discussion of student safety.

The governor said that many entities have a role to play, including the federal government.

“It’s going to be a combined effort of everybody,” Herbert said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck issue, not just one at the exclusion of everybody else.”