Lawmakers punt on school safety and gun reform in Utah

A group of Utah lawmakers, educators, law enforcement officials and community advocates gathered just a week ago in the opulent Gold Room of the Utah State Capitol to announce a bold, collaborative effort to combat gun violence and enhance student safety.

“We think it’s time to act,” Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said at the time. “And we think it’s time to act right now.”

But within hours of the announcement of a newly created Utah School Safety Commission, the promise of swift action began to diminish.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said at a news conference that lawmakers should stand down on the issue and instead let school administrators to take the lead. And a bill to allow the seizure of guns in certain, court-ordered situations landed with a thud during its initial committee hearing, ending debate on gun-related legislation this year.

“I would not have brought that up if I didn’t think there was good traction for that legislation,” Hughes said on the final day of session of the bill, brought by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton.

Despite that measure’s failure, members of the school safety commission say they’re committed to forging ahead and bringing recommendations to lawmakers.

“We can’t expect one piece of legislation to solve this,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “This is a systemic problem that is only going to be solved with a systemic, comprehensive answer.”

Hughes said he hopes the group come up with ideas soon.

“I’d love a reason to hit the gavel again after we sine die at midnight,” Hughes said Thursday. “If we find that kind of traction on school safety, student safety, that we’ll be able to have a special session and address that.”

As the conversation about gun violence and school safety unfolds, a series of events are planned across the country and in Utah, organized by high school students in the aftermath of a Florida shooting last month that left 17 teens dead.

In Utah, several school walkouts and demonstrations are planned for March 14 and students are also organizing a march to the state Capitol on March 24.

Elizabeth Love, a West High School senior, is one of the organizers of Utah’s March For Our Lives on March 24. She is also one of two student members of the Utah School Safety Commission.

Asked about the differing approaches of the House and Senate, Love said the safety commission offers the “best of both worlds,” by exploring both potential legislation and new school policies.

School administrators play a role, she said, but can’t be expected to solve the problem of gun violence on their own.

“It’s bigger than that,” Love said. “We should be trying to address this problem in every arena.”

McKay Jensen, president of the Provo City School District Board of Education, said it’s appropriate that so much of the gun violence debate focuses on school shootings and campus safety.

“We have our state’s most precious resources six hours a day,” he said.

But while attention to the issue in Utah and across the country seems to spike and wane with each new shooting, Jensen said the topic remains an ongoing point of discussion among school administrators.

There are “low-dollar” steps, he said, such as creating single-entry access to schools, installing electronic locks on doors or adding office staff to keep track of all who enter or exit school grounds. But even less expensive actions can be difficult when they have to compete with other educational priorities.

“This is not a new thing,” Jensen said. “There has not been any period since Columbine High School that this hasn’t been somewhere on our agendas.”

Another gun bill proposed this year, HB129, would prevent a judge or jury from considering whether a person failed to retreat before he or she uses force to stop a forcible felony such as sexual crimes, homicide, kidnapping, arson, robbery and burglary.

Opponents of that bill — some of whom tried to lobby senators against it shortly before it was set for a vote — say it would grant greater legal immunity to people who shoot and kill aggressors.

The measure passed the House and awaited a final vote in Senate at press time.