State lawmakers are looking at biometric safes, gun locks, education efforts and a new type of court order as potential tools to prevent suicide deaths by firearm in Utah.
A Harvard University study released earlier this year showed suicides accounted for 85 percent of Utah’s 2,983 firearm fatalities from 2006 to 2015. In part, that’s because guns are a particularly lethal form of self-harm, meaning there’s often no opportunity for others to step in and help, says Allison Whitworth, a suicide-prevention coordinator for the state. For that reason, time and distance can act as crucial buffers between a person in crisis and a firearm, she said.
"By locking up the guns or removing ammunition from the home or removing the key from the home ... all these things can help buy time so someone can help a person come out of this immediate crisis," Whitworth, a coordinator with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said.
In the legislative session scheduled to start Jan. 28, state Republican Reps. Steve Eliason of Sandy and Stephen Handy of Layton plan to bring forward bills to reduce the number of lives lost to gun-related suicides.
Eliason’s bill focuses on gun safety education and promoting safe storage of firearms. It would require firearm sellers to distribute gun locks to customers buying a shotgun or rifle and would create a coupon program to defray the cost of biometric gun safes, he said.
Separately, Handy is sponsoring a “red flag” bill that would empower courts to temporarily order gun owners to surrender their firearms if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
Eliason’s bill has already received a favorable recommendation from the Health and Human Services Interim Committee, and he anticipates gun owners will be receptive to the measure.
“One of the things that I hope people, particularly parents, become aware of is that the firearm they purchased to protect their family is much more likely to injure or kill a family member than an intruder’s firearm,” Eliason said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. If they will store it securely and safely, they can prevent an unspeakable tragedy from happening in their own home, while at the same time having a firearm for their family’s protection.”
Part of Eliason’s bill would extend an existing program to hand out firearm safety brochures and gun locks. Rebate vouchers for gun safes were also supposed to be part of the original initiative, created through a bill Eliason sponsored in 2014, but he says there was insufficient funding for this aspect of the program.
The new proposal calls for a one-time infusion of $500,000 for the program and ongoing allotments of $100,000.
Eliason said his plan is to develop an online training course on firearm safety that people could complete to earn credit toward buying a biometric gun safe.
His proposal also speaks to a specific finding of this year's Harvard study: That 62 percent of youth suicides in rural areas involved rifles or shotguns.
While federal law requires dealers to provide trigger locks during handgun sales, Eliason said, the same rule doesn't apply to long guns. Eliason's bill would call on sellers to hand out the locks with rifles and shotguns, as well.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said he needs to read the language of Eliason's bill before offering an opinion.
"But the Utah Shooting Sports Council has always been consistent and encouraged the safe and appropriate storage of firearms," Aposhian said.
Aposhian is decidedly unenthused about Handy’s proposal on extreme risk protective orders.
Handy offered up the legislation last year in the wake of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., but it never passed out of the House.
Under his bill, family members or roommates could petition the court to remove firearms from a person who has threatened self-harm or violence against others. After considering the submission, the court could then issue an emergency order lasting up to 20 days and schedule a hearing within 14 days so the gun owner could present his or her case.
The judge could then restrict someone from possessing firearms for up to a year, Handy said. But, in many cases, the final order might not even be necessary, since the initial petition could encourage the gun owner to seek the mental health treatment he or she needs, he said.
And removing guns from someone who's in crisis could defuse a situation before it escalates out of control.
Suicides are “not usually long-planned events," Handy said. “They’re spur-of-the-moment with long-lasting consequences.”
However, Aposhian contends the proposal would amount to a gun grab.
“It doesn’t afford the respondent appropriate due process," he said. “We’re talking about taking away someone’s firearms when they haven’t committed any crime.”
Eight states have passed bills allowing relatives or household members to petition for removal of guns from a person in crisis; three more states allow police officers or other state officials to file the petitions, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Handy said his bill is still in drafting phase, and a copy is not available, but he said it will contain changes from the version filed last year.
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.