House Speaker Hughes: Utah lawmakers plan to hit accelerator on bills to prevent school shootings

In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. A Republican state lawmaker's plan to repeal the death penalty in deep-red Utah has cleared its first test. The proposal now awaits a vote by the full House of Representatives, where it has the backing of Republican Speaker Hughes. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Top Utah House leaders say they are taking to heart challenges from Senate candidate Mitt Romney and President Donald Trump for states to act quickly on preventing school shootings because Congress has long been at an impasse.

House Speaker Greg Hughes said the House is forming a group to look quickly at what lawmakers could do this year — even though less than two weeks remain in the legislative session.

“We’re crazy enough to try to do it while we’re still in session here. We want to see if there are things we can do right now,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“We’d love to try to find some common ground early and maybe get something through. But minimally, if we are not able to do that, we will work through the interim [after the session]. And if we think it’s urgent enough, maybe we would have a special session. It’s a high priority,” Hughes said.

He said the new group seeks to include state school officials, gun-rights advocates and others. “We’re trying to bring in some diverse opinions or perspectives to get this beyond an impasse.”

But several lawmakers, including Senate leaders, said they haven’t heard of the effort and noted there’s little time left to act this session.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser cautioned a better approach would be letting “the issue die down” and returning to it in a “non-emotional” way in the future.

Still, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said, “if there’s something that works, we’ll find a way to pass it. We always do.”

Hughes said the group aims to do two things quickly.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks as during a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Hughes is backing an effort to repeal the death penalty in the state three years after lawmakers voted to reinstate the use of the firing squad as a backup execution method. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“We want to take an inventory of the legislation we have passed regarding school safety in the past. We want to understand what bills we have passed, and make sure that if we passed legislation, is it being implemented the way we intended?”

Next, “what could we agree upon by way of new policy? It would have to be done quickly because we’re running out of days to see if there is something we can do right now to enhance safety.”

When asked for an example of what he thought the Legislature might try, he said addressing security at schools is a possibility — and notes on the day of the recent Florida school shooting that state passed a bill to allow barricade locks at schools that had been prohibited by fire codes.

“I think we can secure how people come inside buildings, or what kind of training or security we have for entrance into a school and maybe make that tighter than it is now. That’s just me. That’s my hunch.”

As a sign of something else that may be in the works, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, received permission from the House on Thursday to open a bill file to allow removing a gun from someone who poses a threat to himself or others.

Handy said the plan, which has some traction with the gun-rights lobby, is to allow someone to seek a court order targeting a person known to have mental health issues or who has threatened violence.

Members of Senate leadership, who have a big say on the fate of bills, spoke at length with reporters on Friday and said they’d support discussing the issue in coming months with an eye to acting in the 2019 session. However, when told in an interview of Handy’s bill file this session, Adams responded, “That would have legs.”

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he also wants to see action — but says Romney saying states should take the lead “struck me as a bit of a dodge on a controversial topic. I think that Utahns are looking for somebody who’s going to take a stand on tough issues. To me, that was a bit of an inauspicious beginning” as Romney launched his U.S. Senate campaign.

King favors such steps as closing the so-called gun show loophole by requiring background checks for all sales at those events. He would like to empower state officials to give police or even divorce courts a heads up when someone tried to buy a gun but failed a background check.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brian King (D-Salt Lake City) listens during a House Judiciary Standing Committee meeting at the Utah Capitol Tuesday, January 30, 2018.

Also, “I think we can also ban the sale of semi-automatics to anyone under 21. That would address that guy down in Florida.”

And he would like to ban “bump stocks” like the kind used in the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas that allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire more rapidly.

“I will confess something that I feel badly about,” King said. “After the Vegas shooting, I opened a bill file to put a prohibition in Utah on bump stocks. And I abandoned the bill file, and here’s why: I talked to some people in the gun violence prevention community who said: ‘You’re not going to be able to get that bill through.’” It was a calculation about spending too much political capital without a return.

But with shifting public sentiment on mass shootings — including the president’s call for the same sort of ban — King said it could have a chance to pass now.

It might be a mistake, he added, to think Utah would not pass anything close to gun control, saying he’s sometimes been surprised by gun enthusiasts. For example, they worked with him last year on a bill to make Utah law mirror federal prohibitions on gun ownership by people convicted of domestic abuse.

“If you work with the Second Amendment community, there are some things you can do related to gun control that will surprise people,” King said. “There are some good Second Amendment folk out there.”

One thing King opposes is Trump’s idea of arming teachers. He calls that “crazy,” and said all members of his Democratic caucus agree.

But Hughes said that happens to some extent already because “our concealed carry permit holders are able to carry if they are teachers, as well.” He adds, “I don’t want to arm any teacher, and just hand out guns to teachers. But I think if someone has a concealed carry permit now and they find themselves as educators,” they may carry in the workplace.

Meanwhile, Niederhauser, the Senate’s top leader, said lawmakers may be wise to slow down and be careful with new legislation.

“I think the state should take the lead on it. But we have a short session. We’re towards the end and yes, we could address it, but could we address it sufficiently to come up with some legislation? That’s yet to be seen,” he said.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R -Sandy speaks with the media as senate leaders make themselves available for questions in the Senate President's offices at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday Feb. 15, 2018.

“A better approach would be to kind of let the issue die down, I’ve watched this over the years as Senate president. We have an issue, emotions flare up and we emotionally draft a bill and want to pass it.”

He said, “What I’ve seen is wait, work on it in the interim, come back with a bill the next session, you have a better bill because you’ve done it in a non-emotional situation. It’s a discussion we’ve had a number of times. Anytime something like this happens, it becomes a discussion.”

Gov. Gary Herbert, meanwhile, said he believes Romney was right when he urged states to take the lead on the issue.

“I believe states have the primary role,” he said. “I think we’re in a better position to understand the unique challenges of our respective regions and states.”

He endorsed as “appropriate” the president’s call to ban bump stocks, but beyond that offered no specific initiatives. Instead, he encouraged schools to have controlled access and engage in lockdown drills. He said he supported background checks and mental-health screening, then questioned whether violent films, single-parent homes and a general desensitization has caused the problem of frequent and ever-bloodier shooting rampages.

“There’s frustration out there because these incidents keep happening. We want to make sure that what we do actually has a positive result. It’s not just a feel-good thing where we think we’ve done something where in fact we have not.”

Senate candidate Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, said that is precisely what Romney is attempting to do with the “political expediency” of trying to push off responsibility to states.

She said she has a clear platform on guns that includes a ban on assault weapons and expansion of background checks to include all gun-show transactions and the growing online market of private sales.

Reporter Bill Dentzer contributed to this story.

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