Utah lawmakers debate requiring gun locks: lifesaver or infringement of rights?

A trigger lock on a semi-automatic handgun is displayed at a news conference Thursday, Aug. 31, 2000, in Houston. A major pawnbroker announced it will provide gun-disabling trigger locks with all firearms it sells in Texas, a move state Sen. Rodney Ellis hopes the Legislature will follow next year by making the devices mandatory. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Amid growing concern over school shootings and youth suicide, Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, is proposing what she considers commonsense legislation to require trigger locks or other secure storage of guns when not in use.

The National Rifle Association attacked the proposal Wednesday, and the Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee held a long discussion about whether it would infringe too much on gun owners’ rights, and whether it would actually prevent suicide.

“We can save lives,” Weight told the committee. “We know from gun enthusiasts themselves that responsible gun owners secure their firearms when not in use.” She said requiring that by law might increase proper storage and reduce the number of youth suicides and other gun violence.

But NRA lobbyist Brian Judy stood to oppose the proposed mandate.

“One-size-fits-all does not work. It might be great for a home with children. It would be inappropriate, perhaps unsafe or dangerous, for a single woman living alone” to try to get a gun out of a safe when an intruder is threatening, Judy said.

“It ignores that fact that Utah firearm owners are extremely responsible,” he said, adding that Utah has a low number of accidental shooting deaths.

“Rather than singling out firearms, perhaps legislation that would criminalize the [unsafe] storage of any item capable of causing injury, illness or death to a child would be more appropriate,” he said.

But Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, a doctor, said while Utah may have a relatively low rate of accidental shootings, it has a high number of suicides committed by firearms — about half are — so he asked Judy what could be done to address that.

“You have to address the mental-health issues” of suicidal people, and not just guns, Judy said. “Dealing with the underlying issue is the key.”

That led the committee to discuss at length whether locking up guns might simply lead people to use other methods to kill themselves — or may cut overall rates.

Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, deputy medical examiner in Cache County who has performed autopsies on suicide victims, said if someone who tried pills or hanging is brought to a hospital, “often times we can help them. If they take a pistol, stick it in their mouth and pull a trigger, there’s nothing we can do for the most part.”

He added, “That’s the difference” about why guns deserve special attention.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said studies show if suicidal people must take an extra 15 minutes or an hour rather than acting immediately on suicidal impulses, they often change their mind.

“We know limiting access to lethal means can and will continue to save lives,” he said. But he added the question is whether it may be better to simply educate gun owners how to do that — rather than criminalize unsafe storage.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, Senate chairman of the committee, was concerned about other potential problems — such as whether the bill would require hunters to lock up guns as they are driving with them. Weight said she is looking at that, but hasn’t resolved it.

“My dad was an avid road hunter. He’d be spinning in his grave over this,” Ipson said.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, asked how it would affect concealed weapons permit holders who may want to put their guns in an unlocked car compartment while driving. Weight said she is also working on that and other questions regarding concealed weapons permit holders.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Elizabeth Weight

Weight said she wanted to have a discussion while her bill is still being drafted to identify questions and concerns — and to have it during summer when students and teachers may be more able to attend and comment.

One student who testified is Brayden Hoehne, 17, a junior at Wood Cross High School. He said the law could take a step forward, even if it doesn’t solve all problems. He said living with mandatory safe gun storage “is a cheap price to pay compared to the value of the lives it will save.”

He recounted talking to a friend who was planning suicide. “That’s why I’m here today,” Hoehne said. “I’m worried that one day my friends won’t talk to me. I’m worried one day I won’t notice the signs.”

Deborah Gatrell, a teacher at Hunter High School, said 86 percent of firearms deaths in Utah are suicides, many among youth. “About half of suicides are completed with firearms that are accessed at home because they are not properly secured," she said. "Safe storage will save lives.”