Utah gun safety advocates urge Cox to veto bill that could lead to more armed teachers in schools

The bill would provide participating teachers with near-blanket liability protection should they open fire on school grounds.

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nancy Halden, a Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah spokesperson, at a news conference urging Gov. Spencer Cox to veto HB119, which would incentivize, train and protect armed teachers.

Sinia Maile lost two teens the 23-year-old called her “brothers” to gun violence two years ago in a West Valley City shooting near Hunter High School.

Both Tivani Lopati, 14, and Maile’s cousin, Paula Tahi, 15, were shot and killed by a 14-year-old classmate during a January 2022 fight between two groups of students, Maile shared Monday.

Another student, Ephraim Asiata, was shot but survived, going on to play football for BYU after at least nine surgeries and three organ transplants. The teenage shooter in December 2022 admitted to manslaughter before he was sentenced to juvenile detention until he turns 21.

The tragedy is why Maile joined advocates and other community members at the Capitol early Monday to urge Gov. Spencer Cox to veto HB119 — a measure the Legislature passed last week that would incentivize more teachers to carry guns, in part by providing participating educators with near-blanket liability protection should they open fire on school grounds.

“In the same legislative session, our lawmakers did not trust universities to hire diverse, competent staff,” Maile argued Monday. “... Now they want us to trust [teachers] with a gun.”

Gov. Cox’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the bill Monday afternoon.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, told lawmakers at a recent House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting that the purpose of the proposal is help teachers — like his brother — finance trainings they may not be able to afford.

Those who participate in the bill’s “Educator Protector Program” would receive free, annual training that would teach them how to defend classrooms against active threats, as well as how to safely load, unload, store and carry firearms in a school.

“Since teachers can already carry firearms, and many are, why not provide them with the skills and the education they need in order to protect our children?” Jimenez said. “HB119 is strictly a defensive bill.”

The bill also would require teachers to store their firearms in “biometric” gun safes in their classrooms if they choose not to actively carry their weapon in the building.

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Valley City resident Sinia Maile speaks at a news conference urging Gov. Spencer Cox to veto HB119, which lawmakers say would incentivize, train and protect armed teachers.

Nancy Halden, a Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah spokesperson, said the most dangerous part of the bill is the liability protection teachers in the program would be granted.

The bill currently states participating teachers would not be liable for civil damages or penalties if, while using a firearm on school grounds, they were acting in “good faith”; not “grossly negligent”; or threatened, drew, or otherwise used a firearm “reasonably believing the action to be necessary.”

It also gives local education agencies, such as school districts, blanket liability protection from teachers participating in the program.

“If a person decides to carry a firearm, they must take responsibility as any citizen to be liable if that firearm harms another person,” Halden said.

Dee Rowland, with the Utah Citizens’ Counsel, called the plan “ludicrous” and argued that arming teachers would complicate the response of law enforcement who might be responding to a situation.

“The more guns that enter the equation, the more volatility and more risk there is of someone getting hurt,” Rowland said.

Jaden Christensen, an emergency department nurse and a leader with Utah Moms Demand Action, cited multiple studies that showed the ineffectiveness of having guns in schools. That included a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health that found the presence of a school resource officer did not significantly reduce the severity of school shootings.

He added that “expecting teachers to make split-second decisions in high-stress situations may inadvertently blur the lines between the core responsibilities and the burden of safeguarding students.”

“These teachers are not often given enough funding to provide their students with school supplies, and it’s clear that the taxpayer funding should be used and could be used elsewhere,” Christensen argued.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, $25,000 would be set aside for the administration of the Educator-Protector Program, while $75,000 would go toward the annual classroom response trainings.

At the end of the day, “a teacher’s job is to educate and mentor,” Maile argued. “We cannot also task them with the duties of law enforcement and first responders.”

If the bill were to become law, it would go into effect on May 1.